In his decade in the storytelling business, Rodrigo García has made a name for himself not only as a notable television director (Carnivale, Six Feet Under, and In Treatment), but also as a filmmaker intensely interested in the lives of women and the intricacies of smaller, often interconnected story lines. It started with Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her and Ten Tiny Love Stories, but García really made his mark with 2005's Nine Lives. When he followed it up with the television movie Fathers and Sons, it was inevitable that he would one day take that same theme and apply it to the female characterizations he loves so much. It wouldn't be in the form of Mothers & Daughters, as Carl Bessai* brought that very film to TIFF in 2008. But with a slightly different title, Mother and Child, García jumps leaps and bounds beyond Bessai's take and has created a well-crafted web of female characters and universally engaging storytelling.
*Who, by the way, has his own Fathers & Sons on the way.
Almost forty years ago, a young girl of 14 has sex, gets pregnant, and gives her baby up for adoption. Fast-forwarding to the present day, we meet three very different women, each of whom struggles to maintain control of their lives. There's Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), a smart and successful lawyer who uses her body to her advantage. Any time she feels that she doesn't have the upper hand, and cannot control the situation, she uses her sex appeal – whether that be starting a romance with her boss (Samuel L. Jackson) when she suspects he is trying to start one himself, or finding some way to control her overly friendly neighbor and husband (Carla Gallo and Marc Blucas). Karen (Annette Bening), meanwhile, is a bitter health care professional who obviously has a lot of heart but never shows it. She gave up a daughter at the age of 14 (wonderfully shown rather than told, she is the young girl and mother of Elizabeth), and has never gotten over it – her bitterness inspiring her to lash out at everyone around her – even the gentle man at work who is undeniably drawn to her (Jimmy Smits). Finally, Lucy (Kerry Washington) is a woman who has failed to conceive with her husband, so she turns to adoption to make the family she desires.
Each of these characterizations could easily be stereotypical and superficial, but García's writing and the talents of the actresses make each moment rich and real. Elizabeth is, at once, both an amazingly smart woman who wants to lash out at a society that might undervalue her, and a critically damaged woman who emotionally isolates herself in a desperate attempt for self-preservation. As people like Paul (Jackson) enter her life and challenge her unique attitudes, you can see her desperate attempts at isolation crumble, morph, and rebuild themselves.
Similarly, Karen must also learn to let her guard down and heal the bitterness she feels toward her own mother for making her give up her daughter. (This detachment plagues her as she keeps diaries of letters for her daughter, eager to maintain some form of connection with the baby she gave away.) Karen has to forgive herself, accept that the past is the past, and find a way to accept kindness and possibly even love from the people around her, like Paco (Smits).
And in one of the characterizations that could most easily seem old and over-played, but never falls into such traps, Washington's Lucy is the successful and eager potential mother (much like Jennifer Garner in Juno). Where most characters in her position slide on the blinders and become over-eager at any cost, Lucy's quest is paved with heart and a refreshing sense of reality. She must contend with the challenges of shmoozing a woman who wants to give her child up for adoption (which she does with honesty -- as she so aptly says: "The truth is easier to remember."). She must comfort a husband whose interests in adoption continue to decline, and appease the fears of uncertainty that come with the whole process -- especially whether Lucy will get the child or the young woman will change her mind. It's an emotional roller coaster that Washington handles with ease.
Mother and Child plays out beautifully, a familial song that grows and intertwines with each passing moment, and there are only a few bumps in the road to jolt the journey. At times, jumps in the story seem jarring, and could be handled more smoothly. The formation of Karen and Paco's relationship is rushed in comparison to the slowly unfolding worlds of the three main characters, and the second of three jumps forward in time seems rushed and disjointed -- thrown in rather than properly introduced or joined. But those are minor flaws of a greater, entertaining whole.
I know, the premise screams of the possibility for overwrought melodrama -- a lot of matronly sappiness, cliched tears, and easy emotion tugging. But Mother and Child never succumbs to such easy routes. García's dedication and appreciation of the women he writes, the humor he instills throughout the script, and the ways he makes these characters come together is refreshing, and with the power of the women he cast, the film is a joy. It might be easy to toss this film off into the realm of "chick flick," but to do so would greatly short-change it.