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The new film "Mother and Child" stars Annette Bening as a woman who gave birth to a daughter at age 14 and gave her up for adoption. Naomi Watts plays that daughter 37 years later, and Kerry Washington is a young woman who can't conceive and longs to adopt a child of her own. Written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, the film is about how their paths unexpectedly cross, or don't.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: 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 and that way, like tectonic plates.

That Garcia is the son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez interests me largely because of how clearly he's 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 as 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.

(Soundbite of movie, "Mother and Child")

Mr. SAMUEL L. JACKSON (Actor): (as Paul) If you wouldn't mind, could you give me some of your personal background?

Ms. NAOMI WATTS (Actress): (as Elizabeth) I was born here in Los Angeles. And I was given up for adoption on the day of my birth. My mother was 14 when she had me, and that's all I know about her. My adoptive father died when I was 10. My adoptive mother and I are not close. My name - Elizabeth Joyce - is one I picked out for myself in junior high. It's my legal name now. I don't go by any other. I live alone. I have since I turned 17. I've never been married, and I have no plans to marry. I value my independence above all things. That way I don't have any expectations to fulfill other than my own, which are great enough.

EDELSTEIN: 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 Annette 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 coworker 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.

(Soundbite of movie, "Mother and Child")

Mr. JIMMY SMITS (Actor): (as Paco) What else would you like to know?

Ms. ANNETTE BENING (Actress): (as Karen) We don't have to interrogate each other. This is not a date.

Mr. SMITS: (as Paco) Interrogate's a harsh word. You live by yourself?

Ms. BENING: (as Karen) No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BENING: (as Karen) What's so funny?

Mr. SMITS: (as Paco) No, nothing. I just can't seem to say the right things around you, and I'm trying, believe me.

Ms. BENING: (as Karen) What do you mean?

Mr. SMITS: (as Paco) I just feel like I keep putting my foot in my mouth every time I talk to you, and I just don't know why. Look, I'm sorry. Let's forget I said that, all right? I don't know what I'm talking about.

Ms. BENING: (as Karen) I'm not a difficult person.

Mr. SMITS: (as Paco) I don't mean that.

Ms. BENING: (as Karen) No, you're not comfortable with me.

Mr. SMITS: (as Paco) No. I am.

Ms. BENING: (as Karen) My words are too harsh.

Mr. SMITS: (as Paco) No, no, no, no, no. I...

EDELSTEIN: 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. She can't have children and undergoes a grueling grilling by a pregnant teenager played by 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.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

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