Mother and Child

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
  Mother and Child
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Karen (Annette Bening) was forced, at the tender age of 14, to give up her newborn baby for adoption by her mother and has been a bitter person ever since. Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) is a high powered corporate go getter with plans to make it to the top but plans change. Lucy (Kerry Washington) cannot get pregnant and she and her husband, Joseph (David Ramsey), hope to adopt a baby soon. For each woman it is a matter of being a “Mother and Child.”

This is an uneven trilogy of stories about motherhood, forced adoption, resentment and neediness that only sometimes works. What works is Karen’s story. Forced by her mother, at the age of 14, to give up her baby, she has lived a life of resentment toward her mother and a life outlook that is, to put it mildly, off putting. She is a physical therapist who speaks her mind, whether the recipient wants to hear it or not. This changes when kind and friendly Paco (Jimmy Smits) comes into her life. Their relationship has a rocky start, because of Karen’s bluntness, but slowly turns because of the gentle and understanding Paco. Bening and Smits develop nice chemistry as he thaws her coldness.

Elizabeth’s story is less compelling – due, I think, to Naomi Watts’s mostly cold and unsympathetic performance/character – and rings far less true than the Bening story. Elizabeth comes across, at first, as a hot shot corporate executive. However, it soon becomes a seduction of her widower boss, Paul (Samuel L. Jackson), an affair, pregnancy and a simultaneous, short romantic interlude with another.

Least in the trilogy is Lucy’s tale. She and her husband desperately want a child but Lucy is unable to get pregnant. They opt for adoption and are thrilled to find a young, pregnant college student willing to give up her soon-to-be-born baby. A wrench is thrown into the works when two mothers enter the mix – Peter’s, who wants a blood grandchild, not someone else’s, whispers her feelings into his ear, and the pregnant girl’s mom who wants her daughter to keep the baby. This story is obvious from the start and leads to expected ends. The best thing in this part of the trilogy is the young actress, Shareeka Epps, who plays the pregnant girl, Ray. She dominates her scenes and, again, impresses me as an actress.

“Mother and Child” is intelligent and aimed at a mature femme audience. In the end, it is all about closure. I give it a B-.

Fifty-one year old therapy worker Karen (Annette Bening, "Open Range") lives with her mother, Nora (Eileen Ryan, "The Pledge," "I Am Sam"), the woman who made her give up her daughter for adoption back when she was just fourteen.  The decision has haunted her life.  That daughter has become loner lawyer Elizabeth (Naomi Watts, "The International"), a woman with abandonment issues who suddenly must deal with her own unplanned pregnancy. Lucy (Kerry Washington, "Lakeview Terrace") is unable to conceive and has decided to adopt a child, a decision which does not go over well with her husband's parents.  The three woman's stories are connected by Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones, TV's "24"), the woman who tries to bring together "Mother and Child."

Forgoing the omnibus nature of his prior two films for an interconnected trilogy of stories a la the style of producer Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Amores Perros"), writer/director Rodrigo García ("Nine Lives") once again explores the lives of women and achieves an emotional punch with the aid of his superb cast, many returning from his earlier films.  However, not all of his threads are strong as the one he opens with.

With great filmmaking efficiency, García establishes Karen's back story over opening credits with no dialogue.  We meet the adult woman, a brittle perfectionist critical of all around her who nonetheless is good at her job caring for the elderly.  Her job follows her home, as Karen has given her life over to looking after mom, but again, she is jealous of her mother's closeness to cleaning lady Sofia (Elpidia Carrillo, "Nine Lives") and Sofia's daughter Cristi (Simone Lopez).  Then two things happen to shake up her life - a new therapist, Paco (Jimmy Smits, "The Jane Austen Book Club"), expresses an interest in her, despite her off-putting social skills, and her mother dies - and these occurrences kickstart a search for the daughter she gave up.

We meet Elizabeth as she cooly and confidently interviews for a job with Paul (Samuel L. Jackson, "Lakeview Terrace"), who heads an L.A. law firm.  She lands the job - and her boss - but while he is impressed with her skills he's a bit nonplussed by her aggressive sexuality mixed with a lack of affection.  He'd be more disturbed if he knew that Elizabeth had also seduced her next door neighbor Steven (Marc Blucas, "The Jane Austen Book Club"), mostly, it appears, because of is very expectant wife Tracy (Carla Gallo).

Meanwhile, Lucy, who works with her mother Ada (S. Epatha Merkerson, TV's "Law & Order") at their family run bakery, has found a pregnant teen, Ray (Shakeera Epps, "Half Nelson"), through Sister Joanne's adoption agency.  Ray is exceptionally choosey about who she will give her child too, but finally connects with Lucy even though she's not crazy about her husband Joseph (David Ramsey, SHOtime's "Dexter").

It should be no surprise that these three stories will intersect in more ways than through the adoption office and some resolutions are more satisfying than others.

The best thing about "Mother and Child" is Annette Bening's perceptive performance.  Having been denied the right to love her child, she has turned inward, looking to perfect herself.  She's so tightly wound and so reliant on herself, that she has lost the ability to connect with other human beings.  And herein lies a problem. While Bening's acting is terrific, it is completely unbelievable that Paco, a warm and even-keeled guy, would persist in wooing her after being brutally shut down several times.  There is not enough sexual chemistry between these two to account for Paco's belief and his character is not fleshed out enough to provide any other rationale.

There is a similar problem with Watts's character.  The ice queen is a little too ruthless, her mother taken to shark level.  There is nothing likable at all about Elizabeth until she discovers her pregnancy and begins to prepare for it.  Again Jackson's Paul is the Paco parallel, but at least he eventually wises up to their romantic possibilities.  In a small role, Brittany Robertson (TV's "Swingtown") as blind teen Violet, helps to humanize Elizabeth and their scenes together do work.  Also good is Amy Brenneman ("The Jane Austen Book Club") is Elizabeth's doctor who, as a former college classmate, dares to presume a friendly approach.

Keeping the prickly in the mix is Ray in Lucy's story.  Lucy is the opposite of Karen and Elizabeth but, except for her mom, is surrounded by opposition.  We never really do get to fathom her marriage.

García over relies on melodrama and coincidence in his final stretch, but emotionally his conclusion does work. This work is all about the actresses, none of the actors able to create completely fleshed out characters. With "Nine Lives," García hit more of his story out of the park.  Here we get two character studies woven into a soap opera.  Bening's work, though, makes "Mother and Child" worthwhile.

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