Though really nothing more than a high-toned soap opera, until an entirely too contrived ending Rodrigo Garcia’s “Mother and Child” is a solid woman’s picture, a genre not noted for its successes. Were it not for the powerhouse cast one could imagine it as a Lifetime Network or Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie, but the extraordinary performances elevate the material far above its treacle-drenched roots.
The film is an interlocked trio of stories set in Los Angeles. The first centers on Karen (Annette Bening), a brittle middle-aged physical therapist who cares for her aged, infirm mother at home. Karen’s life has been darkened by a youthful indiscretion—she got pregnant at fourteen, gave up the child, a girl, for adoption and has never seen her. Her stand-offish attitude initially rebuffs the gentle advances of a new colleague, Paco (Jimmy Smits), but eventually she warms to him. Meanwhile lawyer Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) is taking a position in the firm of widower Paul (Samuel L. Jackson). A totally self-assured woman accustomed to using people for her own ends, she soon begins an affair with Paul but seduces her next-door neighbor (Marc Blucas), an apparently doting young husband with a pregnant wife. But things do not turn out as expected.
Then there’s Lucy (Kerry Washington), who’s unable to have a child with her husband (David Ramsey) and so turned to an adoption agency headed by Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones). The couple is introduced to Maria (Tatyana Ali), a hard-as-nails college student who’s already turned down several hopeful applicants, but is taken with Lucy. But in this case too things do not proceed smoothly.
Garcia has chosen his leads well. Bening is simply spectacular, almost unrecognizable in an award-caliber performance that’s easily one of the best of her career, and Watts and Washington very nearly match her. Among the men Smits radiates gentle support, and Jackson gives one of the rare performances in which he doesn’t have to rant and shout, showing that he’s still capable of a degree subtlety that’s even more impressive than his usual stentorian ways.
But the supporting cast is equally fine. Jones is a sympathetic presence, Ali and Ramsey capture their characters well, and Blucas makes a convincing target for seduction. S. Epatha Merkerson makes the most of her scenes as Lucy’s critical but supportive mother. And even smaller parts are expertly filled. When one finds such sterling actors as David Morse (as the grown-up version of Karen’s teen heartthrob), Amy Brennerman (as a gynecologist who earns Elizabeth’s wrath), Lawrence Pressman (as a doctor she’s more comfortable with) and Elizabeth Pena (as an office manager) in what are little more than cameos, you know the project was an attractive one to be involved with. And the lesser-known members of the ensemble deliver as well. Elpidia Carrillo, for example, who plays Karen’s maid Sofia, is a gently wise presence; and the thread involving her employer’s attitude toward her young daughter makes for a poignant commentary on the depth of Karen’s emotional pain (as well as giving Bening the opportunity for some of her finest scenes).
Technically, too, “Mother and Child” is fine—not glossy like a studio tearjerker would be, but solidly naturalistic, but unobtrusive cinematography by Xavier Perez Grobet and editing by Steven Weisberg that juggles the various plot elements skillfully.
In fact, there are so many virtues in Garcia’s film that the denouement is especially disappointing. There’s one powerful twist, but it’s followed by several others that have almost fairy-tale connotations and a last-minute coincidence that frankly strains credulity to the breaking point. It’s here that “Mother and Child” most resembles TV cable fodder.
Still, so much good has gone before—in the writing, and especially in the performances—that one is willing to forgive the last-act stumbles. Call it a woman’s movie if you must, but it’s a strong one.