Heavily pregnant Gia (Oakland rapper Tia Nomore in her film debut) has to beg a discount to afford a crib and a couple of cheap tschotskes for Shaynah (Alexis Rivas) and Trey (Ca'Ron Coleman), the young children she’s fighting to get out of foster care. But the system is a contradictory nightmare, her caseworker won’t even look her in the eye unless she’s castigating her and she’s being pressured to consider giving up her unborn child for adoption in “Earth Mama.”
Laura's Review: B
Making the leap to features from shorts and music videos, writer/director Savanah Leaf has gathered talent both newfound and experienced to portray a woman whose natural nurturing and capacity for maternal love are under attack by the socioeconomic realities faced by the underprivileged and the demands made by government programs that create more obstacles for those already struggling. Leaf balances harsh realities with poetic reveries that reveal Gia’s true nature, but her film is also somewhat hampered by ambiguity, her film beginning in media res but never backtracking to fill in important details.
Gia has a calm demeanor, exhibiting tremendous patience with the children she doesn’t get to see enough and careful care and consideration of the customers she sets up for portraits at a Photo Magic store in the mall where she works part time, choosing painted backdrops that evoke imagined life stories she dreams of stepping into. She’d like to work more hours in order to set up the appropriate household demanded by the foster care system, but cannot as that same system demands her presence in mandatory classes that take up all her time. And those classes and her treatment in general are dehumanizing, a series of drug tests, unhelpful group therapy sessions and judgmental case workers.
The only support Gia has is three friends. Trina (rapper Doechii in her film debut), another pregnant woman in the same programs, is someone she can share absurdities with and who, at one point, expresses the generational struggles of black mothers as a reason to continue fighting. Miles (Dominic Fike, HBO's 'Euphoria') is her sympathetic Photo Magic coworker who recognizes her value and what she’s up against. Spiritual Mel (Bay area activist Keta Price) ends up being the woman Gia leans on the most, the one who will respond when she goes into labor.
Then there is Miss Carmen (Erika Alexander, TV's 'Living Single'), the woman who pushes Gia to meet with families looking to adopt. Gia doesn’t fully trust her motives, but takes a meeting with Monica (Sharon Duncan-Brewster, "Dune"), Paul (Bokeem Woodbine, "Queen & Slim") and their teenaged daughter Amber (Kamaya Jones). Gia recognizes what a lovely family they are and we are touched that she mostly connects with Amber through basketball, a sport Gia had to abandon. She invites Monica to her first ultrasound, then wavers upon viewing her child.
Nomore’s quiet performance pulls us in, but although compelling, her internalizing also makes a third act transgression seem shockingly out of character, the only motivation given us by Leaf a confrontation with another woman who questions Gia’s fitness as a mother at a sideshow, an odd and muddled scene. But that same stillness graces cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes’ (“Manchester by the Sea”) more poetic captures, Gia lying in shadow on a couch holding her belly or her internal life depicted with her walking naked through a forest, all accented by Kelsey Lu’s emotive score. Sound design can be haunting as in a scene where Gia steals a pile of disposal diapers from a stroller in a schoolyard, the voice of someone trying to stop her fading into the distance as she tries to block it out.
Leaf also fills in the other side of the story, black adult males posing in front of an urban photographer’s backdrop expressing the confusion and instability of having been placed in foster care. The scene is inorganically inserted, yet provides a nice counterbalance, just as we’ve seen the effects on Gia’s two children, Shaynah shutting down while Trey clings (his telephone calls to his mother are always preceded by warnings of the pitiful remainder in her mobile account). “Earth Mama” depicts the horrible injustices of an uncaring system while giving us a face of someone utterly deserving of support.
Robin's Review: B
A24 released "Earth Mother" in select theaters on 7/7/23, expanding on 7/21/23.