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Review: <i>Mother and Child</i>

Director Rodrigo García's aching new film about absent mothers and absent children

En español | Rodrigo García's new film, Mother and Child, starring Naomi Watts, Annette Bening, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, and Jimmy Smits, is a touching composition of kinship and the bonds that can change lives.

An aching film about absent mothers and absent children, Mother and Child stars Annette Bening and Naomi Watts as women who inhabit lives that are still reeling from choices made long ago.

The film, which opens in May, was written and directed by Rodrigo García, who made Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her in 2000 and Nine Lives in 2005. In these astute flicks for smart chicks, García probes the very personal stories of women who are old enough to take stock of their lives.

On the surface, this is a film about adoption and the importance of family ties. The lives of three generations of mothers and daughters are interwoven as each considers adoption from a different angle. Underneath this veneer, however, Mother and Child is a study of complicated regrets and resentments. Bening plays Karen, a bitter woman who spends each day writing letters (but never sending them) to the child she gave away when she was 14.

A film about adoption and the importance of family ties.

Bening powerfully captures the grief within Karen's fierce hostility. Kerry Washington also impresses as an infertile wife longing to adopt a baby but grappling with a husband (and an extended family) who is not onboard and a pregnant girl who may or may not choose her. Naomi Watts plays Elizabeth, a successful lawyer whose icy, enigmatic personality has been formed by her sense of rejection — a teenage mother had put her up for adoption 37 years ago. Proud of her self-reliance, Elizabeth is isolated, guarded, and unwilling to connect or trust. Watts's nuanced portrayal of this stubbornly opaque character is thoroughly absorbing; it's a sleight-of-hand performance that succeeds in revealing a character who refuses to be revealed.

These three principal characters never interact, never speak to one another — and yet their circumstances connect them profoundly.Their lives have a domino effect on one another. For the most part, García's characters are unsentimental and unconventional. But Karen's second-act transformation lapses into artifice. Jimmy Smits plays Paco, the love interest of the petulant, unlovable Karen. It's a contrived role that functions as an obvious plot device: He offers a redemptive, healing love that moves the story forward.

Less predictable is the discomfiting affair between Samuel L. Jackson's Paul and Elizabeth, who works for him. Karen and Paco's trajectory takes the well-worn route from antagonism to affection and doesn't ring true; Paul and Elizabeth's connection is original and honest and gratifyingly difficult.

In one of the film's most quietly illuminating scenes, Elizabeth appears at Paul's door in the middle of a family gathering. We see that his life is rich with comfortable family bonds, relatedness, and generosity. For the very capable Elizabeth it's like visiting a country she has never seen. And she can't begin to speak the language.

In less capable hands, Mother and Child would be little more than a maudlin soap opera. But García deepens the story with small moments that show the tenacity of familial bonds, the legacy of missed connections, and the saving graces that can come out of nowhere.

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