Mother’s Day may be upon us, but the new film Mother and Child is no Hallmark fiesta of flowers and cards for mom.
The latest work from director Rodrigo García, the film examines the director’s favorite topic — that is to say, women — but this time, it’s their relationships with each other as mothers and daughters that matters more than the token men around them. Far from a broad ode, Mother and Child explores women’s maternal instincts and filial needs through intimate, quiet and unapologetic portrayals of three women in Los Angeles whose lives become interwoven. The city is nearly an after-thought — it’s not the location here that matters but the primal needs teeming within. The biological ties that bind are fundamental for each character — for better and for worse — serving as both the inescapable blueprint for who they are, as well as the map for where they’re going and what they need, at any age.
The journeys, however, aren’t much fun at first. Karen (Annette Bening) is in her early 50s, and is prickly, stilted and unable to form relationships easily. Accidentally pregnant at 14, she gave her baby up for adoption and has never gotten over her sense of loss, despite the decades that have intervened since. Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) is a crisp, accomplished lawyer in her 30s who was given up for adoption at birth and eventually orphaned. It’s soon clear how she and Karen are connected, but while Karen is all awkward introversion and bogged down with sadness, Elizabeth is ice-cold, decisive and bold in ways that are startling and, at times, tough to watch. To compensate for her lonely, un-mothered beginnings, she’s unusually detached — not just from women, but from men, too, engaging in surprising affairs with guys like her cute, married neighbor and her older, new boss Paul (Samuel L. Jackson), eschewing female conventions as simple as small-talk and as complex as romantic intimacy.
Lucy (Kerry Washington) is an upbeat woman desperate to become a mother, and struggling over the many hurdles of adoption. The depths of her desire for a baby are palpable from the moment she appears, when she and her husband are being interviewed by the nun (Cherry Jones) in charge of the adoption process. Lucy is jittery and talking too much, as her husband sits silently and Sister Joanne calmly takes it all in. While religion here is far from exalted — Lucy later admits her belief in self-determination, and Joanne’s faith is essentially ancillary — Mother and Child does strip women down to their core role that’s inextricably bound to the roots of Western religion. In García’s portrayal, the women are largely exalted, and it’s their biological needs and functions that rule. One of the film’s later scenes underscores the theme when a new baby is born but at the expense of the mother’s life. It’s not that sad, though: This mom found a quiet happiness in pregnancy, evolving as a person and shedding some of her old pain. Sure, she dies, but not before watching her daughter enter the world, so what’s so bad about that?
Still, García’s unusual work is more of a nuanced, heartfelt exploration than platitude about the female condition. With exceptional performances and imperfect characters, Mother and Child is a quiet film but a riveting one, displaying the inner lives of women with all the drama that real life entails.