Film >All the stubborn ladies
Karen (Annette Bening) never knew her daughter, having given her up for adoption as a teenage mother. Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) never knew her mother, having been the forsaken daughter in question. And Lucy (Kerry Washington) only knows two things: she really wants a baby, and she’s unable to conceive one of her own.
These are the mothers and children that make up Mother and Child, the latest in the films involving overlapping lives of women by Rodrigo García. The writer-director manages a better sense of pacing and place from the start than his last film, the willfully disconnected Nine Lives. Instead, Child is like a gently lathered soap opera whose bubbles burst with expected timing and unwelcome force.
Bening’s character is plagued with considerable regret and defined by impossible rudeness. She lashes out at a co-worker (Jimmy Smits) for leaving a bag of fruit on her locker as a peace offering, sends back cups of coffee before barely tasting them and resents her maid for getting along with Karen’s infirm mother better than she ever could.
Watts’ character, meanwhile, has gone the power-hungry-and-proud route after enduring a childhood of abandonment. She’s a headstrong lawyer happy to work under the supervision of Paul (Samuel L. Jackson). She’s dominant in the bedroom but uninterested in sleeping her way to the top, eager to flee once a relationship threatens to make her feel vulnerable.
That leaves us with Washington’s insufferably perky would-be parent, as she’s subjected to the doubts of her own mother and husband, not to mention the pointed demands of the baby’s current mother (Shareeka Epps). Lucy’s story isn’t a prominent narrative thread until the tidy third act wills it so.
Although all of these different character traits make a prospective marriage, an unplanned pregnancy, a sudden split, efforts by both Elizabeth and Karen to reconnect with one another, and other dilemmas generally hard to swallow, García treats their changes of heart (which feel more like mood swings) as no great feat so long as it means that lives will be intertwined before the credits roll.
While Bening, Watts and Washington all give good performances, they’re up against characterization that renders their roles emotionally extreme, making them almost too stubborn to be sympathetic across the board and robbing some intimate and moving moments of any cumulative impact. (Meanwhile, as most of the men are pushed to the side, Jackson turns in his calmest and strongest work in quite some time.)
As often as the word “adoption” comes up, the absence of abortion is a striking one. García also can’t resist having one character befriend a blind girl who’s wise beyond her years (yuck) while several other characters question the religious leanings of our leads, apropos of precious little, in a half-hearted effort to kick their conflicts up a notch. Then again, who needs God when there’s a screenwriter looming over these lives?