Rodrigo García’s Mother and Child begins with a 14-year-old girl smooching a boy and taking off her shirt; then caressing her big, round belly; then screaming as her baby is born and carried off. In the next shot, that girl is a brittle, haggard Annette Bening, unmarried and childless in her early fifties, living with her elderly mother. “She’ll be 37,” she says, aloud, of the daughter she has never known. In the next scene, an ambitious, chillingly poised 37-year-old lawyer (Naomi Watts) tells her prospective employer (Samuel L. Jackson, with two good eyes) that she’s estranged from her adopted family, lives alone, has no plans to marry, and prefers to work with men because women are threatened by her. “I’m not in the sisterhood,” she says. “I am my own person.” Five minutes in, and already you want to kill yourself.
Mother and Child is suffused with grief and loss. It’s also suffused with compassion and insight. One of García’s earlier films was Nine Lives, in which nine women’s stories were poetically compressed, each told in a single long shot. This time, he has three stories that converge, although not in the way you expect. The third protagonist is a young woman (Kerry Washington) who can’t have children and undergoes a grueling grilling by a pregnant, seething teenager (Shareeka Epps) to see if she’s worthy to adopt the girl’s child. The film becomes a tapestry of mother-and-child stories, each child molded by the overbearing presence or absence of its mother, each wondering which is more important: blood or time spent.
Amid the almost unbearable sadness, Bening is hilariously brittle and defensive when wooed by teddy-bear widower Jimmy Smits, and Washington has a marvelous, Mary Tyler Moore–ish goosiness. When a movie has this kind of fullness, it’s worth the emotional workout.
Under no circumstances, though, should you see it the same day as Babies, an ethnographic portrait of four infants from birth to first steps in four different locales—Mongolia, Namibia, Tokyo, and San Francisco. The adorableness quotient is too high. For more on Babies, go here.