A 'Mother' Lode Of Up-Close Psychological Realism

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Annette Bening, Elpidia Carrillo, Simone Lopez, Jimmy Smits

Annette Bening's brittle, wounded Karen can't always connect to the people (Elpidia Carrillo, Simone Lopez and Jimmy Smits) in her life. Ralph Nelson/Sony Picture Classics hide caption

toggle caption Ralph Nelson/Sony Picture 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

Director and screenwriter Rodrigo Garcia has few peers when it comes to direct, up-close, psychological realism: You study the faces of his characters and see their defenses at work, layer under layer of them, shifting this way and that like tectonic plates.

That Garcia is the son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez interests me largely because of how clearly he has staked out his own territory, at the other end from his father's overflowing historical novels full of magical realism. Garcia goes for the microscopic instead of the macroscopic. His 2005 film Nine Lives consists of nine single shots, each a long and sinuous portrait of a different woman's epiphany in real time. A segment with Robin Wright Penn is the most remarkable: She's hugely pregnant and pushing a shopping cart when she meets an old boyfriend — her true love — and there's no cutaway as she moves through the aisles and her inner world crumbles.

Mother and Child is Garcia's latest triumph, and his most formally daring. It's not a fully unified piece of storytelling: It's three short stories that finally intersect, although not in any way we can predict. But among them are echoes, crosscurrents, profound variations on the theme of mothers and children — largely mothers and daughters.

The movie is so painful so quickly. A 14-year-old girl is seen smooching with a boy and taking off her shirt; then caressing her big, round belly; then screaming as her baby is born and carried off. In the next shot, that teenage girl is a brittle, haggard Annette Bening, unmarried and childless in her early 50s, living with her elderly mother.

"She'll be 37," she says, aloud, of the daughter she has never known. In the next scene, a chillingly poised 37-year-old lawyer played by Naomi Watts tells her prospective employer, Samuel L. Jackson, about herself.

"I don't believe in improvisation; I prepare my cases rigorously," she says. "I prefer to work on a project by myself, but I'm willing to be on a team if necessary. I work equally well with men or women, but I prefer to report to a man."

"Why's that?" the employer asks.

"Many women find me threatening," she responds.

Annette Bening, Jimmy Smits i

The emotionally shackled Karen has a comically awkward affair with Jimmy Smits' character, a widowed co-worker. Ralph Nelson/Sony Picture Classics hide caption

toggle caption Ralph Nelson/Sony Picture Classics
Annette Bening, Jimmy Smits

The emotionally shackled Karen has a comically awkward affair with Jimmy Smits' character, a widowed co-worker.

Ralph Nelson/Sony Picture Classics

Less than 10 minutes into Mother and Child, we feel in our bones how the adoption of this baby girl was brutally consequential for everyone. The entire film is suffused with that loss. It's also suffused with compassion, insight, empathy and, from time to time, hilarity. That's because Bening creates a tapestry of tics and tremors and false declarations of strength followed by utter collapse that's both clownish and emotionally true. A cup of coffee with a co-worker who wants to get to know her — a teddy-bear widower played by Jimmy Smits — is a psycho-comic hoot that builds to a bad end, filled with awkward pauses and just-too-long silences.

The third protagonist of Mother and Child, after Bening and Watts, is a young African-American woman played with a wonderful Mary Tyler Moore-ish giddiness by Kerry Washington. Unable to bear children, she undergoes a grueling grilling by a pregnant teenager (Shareeka Epps) to see if she's worthy of adopting the girl's child.

There are more characters, more subplots, each adding something new to Garcia's structure. Characters wrestle with either the overbearing presence or the overbearing absence of a mother. The strands come together at an adoption agency run by a beatific nun played by Cherry Jones, her persistent faith a counterpoint to the grim world outside her doors.

Mother and Child is — there's no getting around it — devastating. But it's the best, the fullest, the most life-affirming pain I've felt at a movie in years.



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