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REVIEW: Mother and Child [2010]

“Sometimes when you fall, it’s hard to get up”

The women inhabiting the ensemble drama Mother and Child from HBO veteran Rodrigo García are connected by blood, psyche, emotion, and, above all else, motherhood. The title is no coincidence; it succinctly encapsulates the subject matter. Beginning with a young boy and girl’s first sexual encounter, they are way too young to fully realize the ramifications and possibility of pregnancy afterwards. It was the 70s and Karen was fourteen, not old enough to make her own decision and willingly consensual to having her own mother be deemed legal guardian of her unborn child. In the matter of seconds we are transported 37 years into the future, bridging her final push in the hospital with the worn and sad visage of her 50-year old self alone at home, caring for her ailing mom. Only minutes in and we’ve already been introduced to three generations of a family, three women whose only time together was at Elizabeth’s birth. And then they went their separate ways.

The film is ultimately Karen’s quest to forgive herself for giving away the one thing she ever truly loved. It also shows the people fate, God, or simple coincidence chooses to let into her life, bringing everything full circle. A triptych of strong women, García deftly weaves Karen’s awakening to love (Annette Bening), Elizabeth’s understanding of compassion and the role of family (Naomi Watts), and Lucy’s ability to trust when everyone she’s trusted has abandoned her (Kerry Washington) together for an emotionally heavy piece. Split almost exactly into two acts, the first hour is an eye-opening experience into each woman’s tunnel-vision existence, their one-track minds shutting them out from enjoying an enriching life. Their problems all seem to stem from mommy issues, building their lives from the rubble of where they were left once the dust settled.

Karen spent every second with regret, a wall of bile and hatred protecting her from the weaknesses of the world; Elizabeth had forsaken motherhood, tying her tubes at 17 and living an independent, successful life devoid of consequence; and Lucy desperately tries to step out of her mother’s shadow, never finding her own voice, but instead adapting to become what those around her expected. In all honesty, for the first hour I had begun to hate these women, (don’t get me started on the cavalier attitude towards adultery). Bening has perfected the coarse, disgruntled curmudgeon over the years and she continued here as a self-proclaimed ‘difficult’ person, so guarded that I think her love interest Paco (Jimmy Smits) would have been forgiven for smacking her rudeness in the face. Watts is a contemporary version of her character’s mother, constantly needing to be in control, while also resting in the hands of a strong male influence. Life is a game to her; she blows through cities and jobs in a whirlwind of personal destruction, ruining marriages, ruining good people, and never feeling remorse.

The only true kindness from the trio comes in the form of Washington’s Lucy. A woman without the capacity to bare children, she and her husband are looking to adopt. Religion and faith is a prevalent theme during Mother and Child, yet Lucy is an atheist, unwavering in the fact that she will raise her child in the realm of non-belief—she was created from nothing and will return to nothing, the time in between becoming a journey of will, luck, and desire. It’s actually a romantic vision on existence, doing whatever is possible to make each second in life matter. Where Karen and Elizabeth wallow in what could have been, separating them from the rest of society by celibacy or promiscuity respectively, Lucy has embraced the fact she can accomplish anything. She is a woman unable to have a child that wants one more than anything—a stark contrast to the two who think they missed their chance.

If there were one overall flaw to the film, I’d gravitate towards the very convenient connections cultivated in order to wrap everything up effectively. It’s hard to be too angry, though, since it appears García knew how contrived it was, at one point having Karen break into laughter at how small our world truly is. The funny thing, though, is that those writerly brushstrokes are what make the beginning’s angry center thaw. Months pass and love has broken through to bring smiles to the faces of those who didn’t think they deserved the muscles to form one. Sister Joanne’s (Cherry Jones) convent becomes an integral character in the second half as the lost relations decide to reach out due to marriage and pregnancy helping to wash previous hatred away. Karen and Elizabeth discover love can exist, whether they believed it was possible or not. Fate still intervenes—not all comes up smelling like roses—but death can be just as powerful a bonding mechanism as life. The film builds towards a reconciliation of sorts; the characters left to achieve one may not be whom you initially thought.

Smits and Samuel L. Jackson’s Paul, boss and lover of Watt’s Elizabeth, are shown with such caring and benevolence that you could argue it is a male writer creating saviors for the broken women they touch. The fact is, however, that it really becomes other women who introduce the defining moments in each lead character’s evolution. Karen never had the chance to be a mother; the actions of her own sullying any possession of kindness, clouding her from seeing how wonderful the woman was. It is Cristi (Simone Lopez), the daughter of her housekeeper, whose innocence is able to chisel at Karen’s fortified heart. For Elizabeth, it is a mix of bad and good—her first gynecologist (Amy Brenneman) showing her exactly what type of monster she built herself into and a hopeful blind girl, Violet (Brittany Robertson), to prove that the future is only as dire as we choose to make it. Both have their ‘a-ha’ moments and grow as a result, their metamorphosis becoming storytelling’s success.

For Washington, though, things are a bit more difficult. She is a woman dealt a bad hand that seemingly gets worse. What happens with Ray (Shareeka Epps), the mother of a promised child, is excruciating to experience, made all the more so by the young girl’s own mother, a small cameo played brilliantly by Lisa Gay Hamilton, with words of motherhood’s intrinsic worth. Karen never stops thinking about her daughter, cathartically writing letters never to be sent; Elizabeth is the strong—if not viciously self-empowered to the point of cruel—success she’s become in response to her ‘abandonment’; and Lucy shows how one can attach to the idea of a child before he/she even comes into her life. It’s said many times throughout the film and it’s true—no matter how much blood connects you, it’s also about the time spent together and the love shared. There are many definitions of Mother and Child, but the connection between them is the same impenetrable bond for all.

Mother and Child 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

photography:
[1] Left to Right: Annette Bening as Karen, Jimmy Smits as Paco. Photo taken by Ralph Nelson © 2009, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
[2] Left to Right: Samuel L. Jackson as Paul, Naomi Watts as Elizabeth. Photo taken by Ralph Nelson © 2009, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
[3] Kerry Washington stars as Lucy and David Ramsey stars as Joseph in Sony Pictures Classics’ Mother and Child (2010)

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