In the ensemble pictures, Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her and Nine Lives, writer-director Rodrigo Garcia established himself as sensitive chronicler of women’s experiences. Men have parts in his movies, but they revolve around everyday women, often poised for crisis, sometimes subtly.
His new film, Mother and Child, also concerns women in varying sorts of emotional trouble. The interconnecting stories focus on middle-aged nurse Karen (Annette Bening), frosty lawyer Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), and hopeful Lucy (Kerry Washington), all working through unusual mother-child relationships. They’re linked by adoption: Karen, as a teenager, gave up a daughter whom she’d now like to find; Elizabeth never knew her biological parents (no prizes for guessing who one might be); and Lucy hopes to adopt a baby with her husband Joseph (David Ramsey).
More tightly focused than Garcia’s previous films, Mother and Child features some of his most vivid characters. Watts is particularly strong as the remote, unsmiling Elizabeth, who initiates sexual relationships by turns tender (with her law firm boss Paul, played, with warmth and dignity, by Samuel L. Jackson) and intentionally cruel (with a married man). The painfully private, self-possessed Elizabeth is refreshing compared to the big studio movie model of a working woman who frets over an idealized career and meeting the perfect man.
Karen, meanwhile, has her own methods for keeping the world at bay. Exacting and blunt, she spurns the friendly overtures of a coworker (Jimmy Smits, playing another helpful and ultimately secondary Garcia male). While Bening is skillfully deglamorized for the role, she affects a slightly cartoonish demeanor—downturned mouth, coiled body language—that worked better in the more stylized American Beauty. Here, she underlines the most film’s contrived moments, scenes where she explains herself well after the audience can read everything from her face.
Garcia favors glimpses into lives over full-on melodrama, yet the latter is exactly what Mother and Child, in its quiet and mournful way, becomes. Expanding storylines from 10 or 20 minutes into 30 or 40 allows more room for hoary conflict. Garcia is so sensitive, so attuned to his prickly creations, that the mood becomes almost oppressive: hushed, morose, and oddly formal.
The actors do what they can. Washington especially makes Garcia’s dialogue sound less stagy, and her scenes with Shareeka Epps (as a pregnant teenager interviewing possible adoptive parents) have a smart, unpredictable tension. Well-intentioned, well made, and admirable, Mother and Child still feels like an art-house equivalent of a Lifetime movie.