The three lead characters of Rodrigo García’s, Mother and Child, played by Naomi Watts, Kerry Washington, and Annette Bening, have some something rarely seen in females on screen – depth. In an industry dominated by men, the heroine’s arc is usually relegated to a supporting character. As Washington said in an interview with this site, in reference to the typical female roles in film, “[women] usually get to hold the hand of the people going through the massive transformation.” According to all three actors the credit goes to García’s script, and his respect for women in general. While the film maker’s admiration for the fairer sex might run deep, and despite the adoration of his stars, the message of Mother and Child holds some unintended naivete toward the role of motherhood in the modern day and age by it’s male helm.
The film opens with Karen (Bening) writing a letter to her daughter, essentially an imaginary person to her as she gave the baby away thirty-four years earlier after an accidental teenage pregnancy. The tone is longing and regretful as she attempts to explain her feelings to the absent child, and it is obvious that Karen spends most of her time mourning over the subject.
The object of Karen’s obsession is Elizabeth (Watts) who we first encounter in a job interview with Paul (Samuel L. Jackson dressed up like the late Illinois Representative Paul Simon). During the interview we get the sense that Elizabeth has a razor sharp, almost unfeminine, coldness that is a help in her career as a high powered attorney.
Third on the list is Lucy (Washington), who first appears with her husband, Joseph (David Ramsey), in a cloying meeting with the agent of an adoption agency, Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones). She neurotically rambles on about her attributes as a future mother, and details her four-year struggle with getting pregnant naturally.
When we meet all three women they are all in various stages in their lives, all at emotional low points, and intended or not, all slightly unlikable. Karen’s life is so colored by her early mistakes that, by her own admission, have nothing to give anyone else. Her obsession has just made her a grumpy, miserable mess who doesn’t know how to deal with any kindness.
On the other hand Elizabeth’s experiences have hardened her to the point where she can’t offer a kindness, even to Paul who, after becoming ensnared in her web of sexual dominance, is willing to give her the world. During their tryst, in an effort to destroy the happiness around her Elizabeth uses her weapons to similarly trap a happily married neighbor (Mark Blucas). She uses him and tosses him aside with the steeliness of a frat boy. Elizabeth’s chilly demeanor makes her a hard nut to crack, not only for the men on screen, but also the audience who aren’t used to seeing a woman with such emotional brutality at her fingertips.
Lucy is the most tolerable of the trio, but not by much. Her self imposed perfectionism makes her hard to take. Like a Container Store of a life everything has its place, but when infertility rears its ugly head she can’t find where to store it, and she becomes an anxious, needy woman who has a problem interacting with anyone.
Even though they are hard to watch, the performances are nuanced and impressive to the point that these three unlikable, complex women are interesting to watch struggle. It is only when they start to grow out of their emotional fetters, when they begin to heal, that the characters become less and less interesting. As each woman finds peace García’s vision of womanhood gains clarity, and his views have to be questioned.
Each of the women is affected by adoption: Karen’s life is ruined early on by giving up a child; Elizabeth is haunted by the feeling she is unwanted; Lucy struggles to find a child to love, her marriage becoming victim in the process. Each of them can only find solace in life when that child finds its way into their lives. One side of the coin says that the film is bringing up questions about the lack of closure for many people involved in adoption.
The other side of the coin says that the film is about womanhood in relation to motherhood. The film is called Mother and Child, it deals with that special relationship. Structuring the film around three characters seems to hint at a larger significance to the subject matter in general (as a screenwriter the film’s executive producer, Alejandro González Iñárritu, has made a career out of this type of structure), so when all three women can only find happiness, can only be likable, functioning people after gaining a measure of motherhood the film seems to be saying that women in general must follow the same pattern.
Elizabeth has a booming career; she is more successful and driven than most of her male counterparts, but they aren’t enough. Only after becoming accidentally pregnant does she soften, does she smile sincerely, does she open her heart to the possibility of letting someone in. Karen’s relationship with her housekeeper’s daughter as a surrogate grandmother rounds the harsh edges of her personality enough that she can begin to build a life for herself. The eventual introduction of a baby into Lucy’s life brings out the centered calm that refused to come to the surface previously.
It is obvious that the filmmaker didn’t have this in mind when writing the script, but it is there nonetheless. For someone who loves women he has a fairly narrow view of the modern woman. Elizabeth is the lynchpin for the theme. Had she come to terms with the monkey on her back in some way other than becoming a mother herself, found a way to accept love, it might have left the film in the arena of adoption solely. As is it is hard to ignore an almost misogynistic simplicity of this aspect of today’s woman.
Whatever the intention of the script García did pull good performances from each of the leads, Bening and Washington even managing to find some humor in this dour tale. Supporting cast is good, though the males, which include Jimmy Smits as Paco, Karen’s love interest, are nothing more than puppets or signposts on each woman’s journey. A stand out among the cast is Shareeka Epps who plays the young mother who promises to give Lucy her unborn baby, a mirror image of Karen, who we see wrestle with the emotions that had to be present in the elder’s back-story.
However García’s work with the actors only goes so far. The film is a little too self-serious, so much so as to be a punishing two hours with little catharsis in the final act. The melodrama borders on Lifetime TV, and is only saved by the caliber of actor employed in each situation. It must be said that the characters García created are complex, interesting portraits of women that are rarely put on the Silver Screen, and kudos to him, unfortunately he just didn’t make it fun to watch.
El Luchador Rating: 3 out of 5
Review By: Paul S. Myers (a.k.a. El Luchador)