'Mother' Issues: Chosen Families, Three Grim Ways

Annette Bening, Elpidia Carrillo

hide captionParent Trapped: Annette Bening plays Karen, a middle-aged woman who lives with her mother and can't help obsessing over the baby she was forced to give up for adoption at 14.

Ralph Nelson/Sony Pictures Classics

Mother and Child

  • Director: Rodrigo Garcia
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 125 minutes
Rated R for sexuality, brief nudity and language

With: Naomi Watts, Annette Bening, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, S. Epatha Merkerson

When it comes to family togetherness, love and quality time are thicker than blood, water or just about any other social glue you can think of. That's the admirable if hardly news-breaking message of Rodrigo Garcia's domestic drama Mother and Child, whose official thread is the impact of adoption on three different women. But as in many a women's picture made by men, its potently unacknowledged subject is the Bad — or Badly Damaged — Mother.

The occasional man appears in Mother and Child, usually as an anemic good egg whose only character defect is a strong attraction to difficult women. Though that's a pretty watery description for Karen (Annette Bening), a Los Angeles physical therapist so disappointed with her lot in life — she lives with her ailing, monosyllabic mother, played by Eileen Ryan — that she can barely open her mouth without biting off heads. This being a love story, however warped, the most relevant head belongs to the hapless colleague (Jimmy Smits) who's taken an ill-advised shine to her.

Should Karen strike you as insufficiently rude and sour, meet Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), a sleek, icy young lawyer whose idea of intimacy boils down to the sexual control of men — among them her much older boss (Samuel L. Jackson), a widowed family man who persists in seeing gold beneath her tempered steel. It will come as no surprise that Elizabeth is the daughter Karen gave up for adoption when she was 14, a decision the older woman so regrets that she spends all her spare time writing letters to the child she's never met, while scaring off anything that presents itself as fodder for a life of her own.

Will Karen and Elizabeth meet? I'm not allowed to say, but I can tell you that after its first scene, which rushes from making out to giving birth to embittered middle age in a New York minute, Mother and Child slows to a two-hour crawl, gathering as it goes a rainbow coalition of multi-culti mothers and daughters, plus homilies on the life well lived. (Exemplified mostly, of course, by earthy ethnic minorities.)

Garcia, who's the son of Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is best known for his work in television, where he has directed episodes of Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and In Treatment. This new project, interestingly, isn't much of a film in the big-screen sense of the word — a surprise, given that the writer-director is also a former cameraman who worked on Mi Vida Loca, the vivid East Los Angeles melodrama from director Allison Anders.

Mother and Child, by contrast, is drably lit and yields little visual pleasure or sense of place. You can hear lines of dialogue lumbering down the transom before they arrive, and the plot is pure daytime soap, pulled along by endless strings of what my mother used to call hatch, match and dispatch. It's all tied together at the end with a standard-issue "one year later" gambit featuring sunlit scenes of a multicultural, multigenerational family at play.

Kerry Washington, David Ramsey i i

hide captionAnd Baby Might Make Three: Lucy (Kerry Washington) and her husband (David Ramsey) are starting the process of adopting a child.

Ralph Nelson/Sony Pictures Classics
Kerry Washington, David Ramsey

And Baby Might Make Three: Lucy (Kerry Washington) and her husband (David Ramsey) are starting the process of adopting a child.

Ralph Nelson/Sony Pictures Classics

Garcia's 2005 drama Nine Lives gave him a well-deserved reputation as a man who loves women. I'm not so sure about Mother and Child, whose dominant mode is a kind of Catholic ambivalence. I'm all for difficult women, but the deck grows more and more ferociously stacked as the film progresses, with two forbearing men in the pink of mental health propping up an ensemble of female wrecks: one abusive bitch, a defeated old ruin, a frigid careerist who stops just short of bunny-boiling, a yammering hysteric played with too much anxious conviction by Kerry Washington, and two teenage girls — one blind and a victim of an over-protective mother, the other pregnant and hating it. Their redemption is perfunctory, to say the least, and the only unambiguously nurturing parental figure is a virgin nun, played in a key of unflagging serenity by the wonderful actress Cherry Jones, who surely deserves better.

Garcia is similarly queasy about adoption: If the notion is that unconditional love is stronger than any blood tie, then why are we asked to share in Karen's regret at having given up a baby at 14 — 14! — or to buy into the implied judgment that Elizabeth is a nasty little baggage because, in addition to being abandoned by her birth mother, she was raised by a less than perfect adoptive one. As the lucky parent of an adopted child who's blessed with a temperament far sunnier and more well-adjusted than my own, I take umbrage.

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