Some people never get over their first loves and it's infinitely harder when that love produced more love in the form of a child given away by the child mother in love – Karen – at only age fourteen.
Keeping a journal for the baby girl she never came to raise and writing letters that she's never been able to send, when we first encounter Karen (Annette Bening) nearly forty years later it's immediately evident that the pain of her first love still weighs so heavily that it affects her relationship with everyone whom she comes into contact.
A veritable iceberg who keeps others at a distance, controlling her environment similar to the way she methodically cares for her patients as a physical therapist and her own aging mother we sense she's never quite forgiven, Karen is a woman who is still very much the child inside, with maternal instincts that have been pushed by the wayside, left to the childish scribblings in a diary.
And quite to the contrary, Karen's own unknown fiercely independent daughter Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) tells her new employer (Samuel L. Jackson) that not only does she not want to marry or have children but that she doesn't seem to have any close personal relationships with anyone, including her adoptive parents (one deceased) nor a desire to see the girl she calls “her majesty” who abandoned her at such a young age.
Equally difficult and just as prone to keeping things in control, there is no softness to Elizabeth nor a wish to write letters to a woman she's never met outside of the womb and delivery room. And when she sees a stable man like her widowed boss or a happily married soon-to-be-father neighbor, she wastes little time in squashing any tender emotion with calculating destructive seduction where she alone calls all the shots.
Using her sexuality as a weapon in an offensive front she must've initiated as a teen, sneaking across the border to have her tubes tied before she was of age, Elizabeth discovers that just like her natural mother, sometimes life has a way of interfering just when we've made other plans as an unexpected arrival of a brand new love – whether it's an adult or a child – enters their lives at roughly the same moment.
Further linking the two storylines together is the plight of Lucy (Kerry Washington) – easily the most relatable character in the entire film – who, after several years of trying to get pregnant decides to adopt along with her slightly less enthusiastic husband who still longs to have a family that's his by blood.
Using the same adoption agency that Karen utilized as a pregnant teen, Rodrigo Garcia's emotionally draining yet beautifully crafted work is as filled with criss-crosses, coincidences, thematic overlap, missed opportunities, and unexpected twists as we've witnessed in his other, largely female-centric works such as Nine Lives and Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her.
As the filmmaking son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the former cinematographer and HBO house director's most ambitious work thus far reunites him with some of the same cast members that have populated his other films. But it's through his first time collaborations with Watts, Bening, and Washington that really makes Mother and Child excel on another level that moves beyond the page as, perhaps due to his penchant for poetic license and fact that English was not his first language, some of the dialogue is clumsily awkward and feels more like thoughts we'd write down in diaries rather than say aloud.
And admittedly those who've seen his previous work along with the films of Mother and Child's executive producer Alejandro Gonzalex Inarritu (Babel, 21 Grams) may have begun to grow weary of the same overly connected, slightly protracted plotlines of the work that you start to foreshadow long before the ultimate payoffs click into place. However, in this case, it's so emotionally powerful that between blinking back tears and being stunned by the power of the actors who dominate, somehow you're willing to forgive all contrivances in what is otherwise a very admirable film.
While a lighter touch – especially in dialogue – would've helped make certain sequences feel less heavy-handed, like his beautiful trio of leading ladies, Garcia's heart is always in the right place which makes it an imperfect yet highly satisfying film to watch that you may find that it takes a little while to get over, as if at times we'd been witnessing pure maternal love.
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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.