In adoption tale, nuance gives way to stereotypes
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, May 21, 2010
Rodrigo Garca may be this era's George Cukor. Cukor, of course, became known as a preeminent "women's director" with such classics as "The Women," "A Star Is Born" and "The Philadelphia Story." And Garca has evinced a sensitivity and steady hand equal to Cukor's with his films "Nine Lives" and "Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her."
With "Mother and Child," Garca brings his finely calibrated sense of drama to the subject of adoption, which he handles with characteristic restraint and insight -- at least until the film's maudlin, too-pat finale. That sharp melodramatic turn is a shame, because so much of what has gone before in "Mother and Child" is of real quality.
Annette Bening plays Karen, who gave her baby up for adoption at 15. Naomi Watts plays Elizabeth, Karen's biological daughter, now a successful lawyer. In a parallel story line, Lucy (Kerry Washington) decides to adopt and meets a potential birth mother named Ray (Shareeka Epps). In a series of spiky, highly charged encounters reminiscent of the HBO series "In Treatment" (which Garca produces), the filmmaker creates intimate, refreshingly frank portraits of women coming to grips with the joy, grief, unresolved longing and ineffable mystery that make the adoption narrative such an abiding cinematic fascination.
At its best, that narrative can find depth and nuance at the hands of storytellers such as Mike Leigh ("Secrets & Lies") and John Sayles ("Casa de los Babys"). Or it can curdle into lurid caricature, as in last year's execrable "Orphan." Garca clearly belongs in the first camp in terms of sophistication, as he examines Karen's guilt, Elizabeth's abandonment issues, the eternal question of nature vs. nurture (Karen and Elizabeth share a prickly, elbows-out stance toward life) and the pressures Ray and Lucy feel from their own mothers.
As ever, Garca coaxes terrific performances from his actresses, especially Bening, who spends most of the movie looking acrid and disapproving, as if she has just bitten a lemon. It's particularly gratifying to see Epps, who made such a stunning debut in "Half Nelson," deliver yet another forthright, quietly electrifying turn as a young woman simultaneously in charge and at sea. (In a story that relegates men largely to the margins, Jimmy Smits and Samuel L. Jackson play their love-interest roles with warmth and magnetism.)
But as absorbing as the performances are, Garca too often plays into tired stereotypes about adoption, from troubled biological mothers and damaged adoptees to processes that go tragically awry. After one character undergoes a particularly lightning-speed change in temperament, the director lays on a ludicrously coincidental plot twist with sentimental bathos that nearly swamps everything that has gone before.
It's understandable that filmmakers are attracted to adoption as a way to explore motherhood, identity and the role random happenstance plays in how we come to love the people we love. But they shouldn't have to rely on hokum, however consoling, to do it.
Contains sexuality, brief nudity and profanity.