Movie Review: Mother and Child (2010)


Annette Bening and Jimmy Smits in Mother and Child
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Rodrigo Garcia’s Mother and Child is one story told through the lives of three separate women, all of which are dealing with their motherly ambitions and the choices they’ve made and the choices that have been made for them. Similar to Crash, you know their lives will come together at some point, although the path taken to get there isn’t entirely explicit at the outset. Garcia does an excellent job navigating from one life to the next, but the film loses its sheen in the end when the desire for a happy ending takes over and turns a well made motherly drama into a soapy attempt at tear-jerking rather than staying committed to the equally devastating and uplifting story being told. In this case, the devastation was only used to be turned into a happy ending, rather than dealing with the real life drama it provided.

The women include Karen, played by Annette Bening in a performance as good as I have seen from her since 2004’s Being Julia. She’s dealing with the fact she gave up a baby for adoption at the age of 14 and has basically been alone for most of her life. She now works as a nurse and at home cares for her ailing mother, all while regretting the young decision she made to the point she tries to do something about it.

Next, Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) was adopted and is now an accomplished lawyer, though her resume reads like a domestic passport as she’s never been able to settle down in one place for too long. Accepting a new position in Los Angeles, Elizabeth begins a relationship with her new boss (Sam Jackson), though her sexual proclivities don’t end there as she continually shows signs of emotional damage.

Finally, Lucy (Kerry Washington), a highly motivated and accomplished woman, is going through the adoption process with her husband due to her inability to conceive. However, his desire to have a child of his own rather than adopt opens the door to tension in the relationship.

Of course, just by knowing the facts as they are laid out in the first few minutes of the film, several pieces of the story are likely to come together for you, but I could actually tell you the entire story and it wouldn’t ruin the one true quality of this film that shines through, which is its attention to the motherly instincts of most women. Garcia gives us a woman that gave her child up when she was young, but feels the pain and need to make up for that loss later in life. A woman given up for adoption feels a disconnect; she’s never known her father or mother and now treats sex and relationships without respect and as relatively disposable. And another woman feels the desire to have a child at any cost, in a character that opens the film up to meaningful conversations with her mother which reach profound levels.

The acting and the effortless direction by Garcia, working from his own original screenplay, brings out true and honest emotion. Annette Bening, as I mentioned earlier, is excellent in a role that challenged the actress from every emotional angle. Her story is the heart of the film and even as a male, I felt I was able to connect to her character and feel what it would mean to be in her shoes.

Naomi Watts and Kerry Washington both give solid performances with Washington delivering a character that results in the film’s highest of highs and lowest of lows. A conversation between her and her mother (S. Epatha Merkerson) late in the film is the best scene of the entire picture, but it does come after convention has won out and before the melodrama prior to the credits begins.

As the primary male figure in the feature, Sam Jackson is excellent working opposite Naomi Watts. So often I see a Sam Jackson performance and he may as well just start shouting, “I’m Sam Jackson!” He’s had brief moments of quality over the past ten years such as his work in Black Snake Moan, Changing Lanes and Unbreakable, but this is some of the best work he’s turned in since each of his roles began blending into one another following the late ’90s.

I will never be happy with the ending to Mother and Child, which never lives up to the story that gets us there. Fortunately, the best part of the picture isn’t as much the story as it is the idea at its core. The connection between a mother and her child, which is beautifully placed on display with performances by the three leads in one of the better acting pieces of the first half of 2010.

Garcia has managed to tell a story where the inevitable can be seen coming from a mile away, but comparatively, the turns in the narrative lose their importance as the emotional weight of each scene takes over. It’s nearly impossible to perfectly edit together a film in which the storylines are assured to merge due to narrative coincidence, but Garcia and editor Steven Weisberg have come about as close as I’d say they could get and this film is all the better for it.