Rodrigo García’s fourth feature Mother and Child (2009) is a multi-narrative story – reminiscent of the work of executive producer Alejandro González Iñárritu – which revolves around the lives of three women in Los Angeles who become unexpectedly entwined. Featuring impressive performances from Annette Bening and Naomi Watts, the film starts off in an ambivalent mood as our female protagonists fail to endear themselves to the men in their lives.
The men in question – Paul (Samuel L. Jackson) and Paco (Jimmy Smits) – are rather secondary to proceedings, yet in spite of this lack of narrative thrust the natural charisma of both actors do shine out of from their one-dimensional characters. The first half of Mother and Child sees Karen (Bening) playing the spinster, whilst Elizabeth (Watts) (the daughter that Karen gave up at birth) – appears to be a cold, hostile bunny-boiler.
Our third protagonist Lucy (Kerry Washington) is planning to adopt with her husband, yet has to alter her social circle completely. Unfortunately, Lucy’s plot strand is somewhat lost in the proceedings – and yet Washington provides the most cathartic moment in the movie when she breaks down at the hospital following the birth of her surrogate child.
Mother and Child functions best as a film about female identity in society and the social dynamic of the family group; Karen becomes a mother and ceases to be a child once her own mother dies; Elizabeth is ready to become a mother only when it is thrust upon her by an unplanned pregnancy and Lucy initially seems unfit to look after a child until her own mother intervenes.
In complete contrast, the films male characters are predominantly middle-aged and content to settle down. Paul offers the world to Liz if she is pregnant with his child, and Paco is anointed an angel sent to comfort and support the spinster Karen. Flaws arise when Lucy’s husband Joseph (David Ramsey) disappears from the story altogether and Elizabeth’s affair with her neighbour Steven (Marc Blucas) is swept unceremoniously under the carpet.
The film’s constant enforcement of female empowerment does begin to grate after a while, although the respect Garcia has for his character’s is never in doubt and it is is exhilarating to see an actor like Bening firing on all cylinders. Mother and Child can be described as hackneyed and telegraphed, just about elevated to passable by three strong lead performances and notable support by Cherry Jones as Sister Joanne, a nun who encounters each character at various moments throughout the narrative.