Mother and Child is a potent, poignant and beautifully calibrated film about the always-timely issue of adoption and its effect on three strangers in Los Angeles whose lives connect in haunting and unpredictable ways. The adoption theme would seem like no big deal if the three female subjects were happy and securely established in their homes and careers. But all three are tortured victims of frustration, their lives spun out with rising and falling dramatic impact, variations on a single theme. The result is heartfelt and mesmerizing.
The enchanting Annette Bening is Karen, a bitter, unhappy and barren spinster coping with the death of her mother and lifelong feelings of loss and regret over the child she gave up for adoption when she was 14. Naomi Watts is Elizabeth, the grown daughter she has never met, now an icy lawyer with a lust for power games whose own adoption at birth has poisoned her against the idea of marriage and motherhood. Kerry Washington is Lucy, an infertile wife who turns to adoption as the only key to the parenthood she passionately craves, against the wishes of her skeptical husband.
Colombian-born writer-director Rodrigo Garcia (Nine Lives, Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her) is both a sophisticated storyteller and a master of multi-layered narratives about strong, liberated women. As he threads together the fabric of his exemplary film, you become intensely involved in all three stories, wondering how they will inevitably intersect. One of the many pleasures is watching the women grow and evolve, revealing more about themselves in each successive scene. Fraught with pitfalls, the narrative comes together seamlessly.
Unfolding like a novel, each chapter has a resonance that stands alone while luring us into finding out more on the next page. Karen’s loneliness and distrust of men makes life thorny for a friendly co-worker (Jimmy Smits) at the rehab clinic where she works, but she saves most of her disdain for children. She reserves her most private feelings for the journal she has kept for 37 years for the daughter she has never seen, hoping some day they’ll meet.
Elizabeth is a tough, no-nonsense man-hater, but in her law firm, she cleverly seduces her older boss (Samuel L. Jackson), as well as her next-door neighbor (Marc Blucas), who is married, for the sole purpose of getting pregnant.
Lucy’s excess of human warmth is wasted in the struggle to convince her husband (David Ramsey) he is capable of loving a baby that is not his own, but enters the painful adoption agency process with the aid of a Catholic nun (the great Cherry Jones, in the kind of role Fay Bainter invented).
Every scene is sharply observed, shaded with nuance rare to American films, and pulsating with subtle emotion. Even the scene in which Bening meets her long-lost child’s biological father (David Morse) eschews cheap soap-opera histrionics for the sake of tears.
Ask any mother who was ever forced to give up a child for adoption, or any adoptee who has spent years wondering or worrying about unknown parenthood, and they will tell you a formal precision of underlying impassioned sensitivity overshadows everything. You never forget you can never know who you really are. How these relationships finally merge and the three women find ways to reach out for whatever roots they can find in their lives builds, brick by brick, to an increasingly satisfying conclusion with a surprising cinematic coda. (Not all of the multiple stories end up the way you expect.) Very credible acting is greatly responsible for the honest and infectious quality of the film, but the delicate pacing, the lovely cinematography, and the restraint in the use of music make invaluable contributions. Garcia has also gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid sentimentality, examining the causes of conflict, anxiety, insecurity and self-doubt that have impacted the parallel lives of these remarkable women.
Unlike a long line of Hollywood tearjerkers destined to play “Mammy” on your heartstrings, from Greer Garson in Blossoms in the Dust to Shirley Temple in That Hagen Girl, this is one film about adoption you can cherish in different musical keys.
Some cynics will label it schematic, others might dismiss it as a “woman’s picture.” Ignore them all. Mother and Child is a flawless film of heart-rending realism about the eternal chord that binds parents and children and the emptiness when they are separated. Everything about it adds up to a consummate revelation that left me enriched and feeling hopeful about the artistry of motion pictures.
Rex Reed is the film critic for the New York Observer.