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Mother and Child

Samuel L. Jackson and Naomi Wattsin Mother and Child.

More Than a Heartbeat Away: Mother and Child

Rodrigo Garcia’s Mother and Child is more structurally complex than most films, but it keeps a steady bead on its thematic target pretty insistently. Too much so for its own good. That theme is the consequence of child adoption.

Garcia tracks his concept across three interrelated story lines with three sets of characters. Anthony Lane, The New Yorker’s Weisenheimer of a movie critic, calls it an example of “lasagna” movies, a la Babel and Crash, so termed because they’re layered. (I’m unfamiliar with this designation, assuming he isn’t just kidding.) Mother and Child’s compositional parts seem less layered than simultaneous and eventually bend towards convergence.

Garcia wrings considerable sentimentally dramatic effects out of his multi-stream material, often to the impairment of the more substantial meaning and feeling he seems, judging by his naturalistic tone and the fundamental importance of his film’s situations, to have wanted to convey.

Mother and Child alternates between three very different women in disparate circumstances. Annette Bening is Karen, a 50ish physical therapist living with her frail mother in L.A. When she was 14, Karen gave birth to a daughter who was given up for adoption. The loss she continues to feel has blighted and restricted her life.

That daughter is now Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), a disconcertingly self-confident lawyer whose self-possession is hard to distinguish from overweening arrogance. Interviewed for a job at a firm by its senior partner (Samuel L. Jackson), she announces her self-projected trajectory to a judicial position and her disdain for office politics—or friendships—and feminism (“I’m not in the sisterhood”). Of course, she gets hired, which is only an early signal of the credulity-challenging tack this film is going to take.

Garcia also follows the fortunes of Lacy (Kerry Washington), a young wife and businesswoman seeking to adopt who is subjected to an off-puttingly aggressive personal grilling at an adoption agency by a pregnant teenager.

As it moves back and forth among these women, the film lays out cause-and-effect sequences set in motion by decisions, past and present, involving adoption and motherhood. But Garcia has written these with such heavy-handed exaggeration that he blunts a serious response to his theme. And he puts himself in opposition to his film’s sober-sided, naturalistic tone.

This incongruence of aim and approach is most glaring in his depiction of Elizabeth, who seems pathologically cold-blooded and restlessly self-aggrandizing. She’s a bit reminiscent of those caricaturally sociopathic mantraps in 1940s movies like Leave Her to Heaven and Guest in the House. There’s even a faint hint of Bette Davis’ Jezebel. At one juncture, the senior partner tells her, “Your willfulness is a great part of your charm,” but the observation only calls into question his powers of judgment. Yes, we’re supposed to ascribe her nasty absence of empathy to her unhappy experience as an adoptee, but Garcia pounds home the point counterproductively.

The film’s other side of the coin is Karen, who is so invested in her sorrow and abiding sense of loss, and is so tightly strung, that she even tees off at her new co-worker (Jimmy Smits), who seems to be the most saintly—if agnostic—man in Los Angeles County.

Garcia (who is the son of Colombian Magic Realist novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez) has considerable experience as a television director (Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, etc.) and he’s managed the pacing of his complicated film and its large cast ably. But Mother and Child’s ungainly, overripe elements mitigate the effects of his cast’s impressive work. That fine work extends to the performances of recognizable actors in subsidiary roles, like David Morse, S. Epatha Merkerson, and Cherry Jones, who plays a nun very unlike the one she portrayed on Broadway in Doubt.

Bening triumphs most strikingly over the material’s implausibilities, sometimes movingly so, and there are probably one or more awards nominations in her near-term future.

Mother and Child, as the title suggests, is really more about the nature of motherhood than adoption. (Men’s relationship to this process isn’t even considered.) But Garcia leaves us with some excellent performances that must strive against his discouraging recourse to soap-operatic hyperbole.

Watch the trailer for Mother and Child

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