‘Mother and Child’: A Different ‘Family Planning’ Drama

Three women with past, present, and future adoption stories come together.
‘Mother and Child’: A Different ‘Family Planning’ Drama
Karen (Annette Bening) and Paco (Jimmy Smits), in “Mother and Child.” (Sony Pictures Classics)
Michael Clark
R | 2h 5m | Drama | 2010

On the surface, “Mother and Child” is a straight-ahead chick flick that addresses women’s issues and concerns within the context of the not-really hot-button topic of adoption. All but one of the male characters is relegated to the background and, if in the care of less-competent hands or crafted as gooey, sentimental, made-for-TV mass consumption, it would be a total waste of time.

With a radically different approach and theme, but imparting essentially the same message, “Mother and Child” is everything and more the similar 2010 adoption documentary “Babies” wanted to be but wasn’t.

Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), in “Mother and Child.” (Sony Pictures Classics)
Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), in “Mother and Child.” (Sony Pictures Classics)

Even if you’re not a female, a mother, or have never been remotely involved in an adoption, and generally avoid art-house films, you should go out of your way to see this movie. It transcends gender, circumstance, taste, class, and even the ability to procreate. The movie is richly steeped in what can only be labeled as a deftly keen observation of humanity and should appeal in some way to any adult with a pulse or a three-digit IQ.

Rather than revealing any of the details of the expertly executed plot, it might be better to just stick to thumbnail sketches of the principal characters and observations regarding the creative decisions of writer and director Rodrigo Garcia (“Nine Lives,” “Albert Nobbs”).

At Arm’s Length

Mr. Garcia’s first and most notable move is in presenting the three leads as flawed individuals and, in the case of two of them, somewhat unlikeable. Karen (Annette Bening) plays a physical therapist who cares deeply for her patients and her aging mother, yet projects an air of prickly, defensive anger in her private life. Every time new co-worker Paco (Jimmy Smits) says a kind word or makes a gesture of friendship, she shoots him down in flames.

Much the same can be said about the extremely talented, pull-no-punches attorney Elizabeth (Naomi Watts). On her own since she was 17, she sees no value in establishing professional alliances, or even making friends, and has a cavalier, decidedly impersonal code of conduct regarding romance. Elizabeth uses sex as a weapon, and pity the heart of anyone standing opposite her on love’s battlefield.

Outwardly cheery, almost to the point of irksome, is Lucy (Kerry Washington), an unfertile married woman who is so desperate to please her husband Joseph (David Ramsey) and in-laws that she’s pursuing the adoption process with an almost reckless level of determination. The co-owner of a bakery with her mother Ada (S. Epatha Merkerson), Lucy is getting pulled in a thousand different directions, and could bust a gasket at the slightest provocation.

No Small Roles

Extracting career-high performances from the three leads might have been enough for most filmmakers, but Mr. Garcia is a strong believer in the old show-biz adage: There are no small parts, only small actors.

If there ever was a film that lent credence for the creation of a new Academy Award category for Best Ensemble Cast, it would be “Mother and Child.” Each character with a speaking role (roughly 50) and even a few that don’t utter a word, is perfectly cast. Actors who have been leads in other films (Samuel L. Jackson, David Morse, Amy Brenneman, Cherry Jones) happily remain on the sidelines most of the time, but flawlessly deliver the goods when called on to do so.

Joseph (David Ramsey) and Lucy (Kerry Washington), in “Mother and Child.” (Sony Pictures Classics)
Joseph (David Ramsey) and Lucy (Kerry Washington), in “Mother and Child.” (Sony Pictures Classics)

Mr. Garcia is careful to craft a movie that pulls double duty, theme-wise. While the film is certainly pro-life, it barely brings up religion (the depicted adoption clinic is located in a Catholic church, but that’s it). There are no fire and brimstone speeches, and none of the three leads is identified as being religious or even “spiritual.”

In taking a pro-life position, some might assume that it is “anti-pro-choice” by default, but that is not the case. The subject of abortion is never brought up which, in the eyes of some, discounts and ignores the practice altogether.

My only, and underscore “only,” issue with the narrative comes in the third act via the introduction of a semi-forced “six degrees of separation” type scenario that stretches the bounds of probability and happenstance almost to the breaking point.

Deep, profound, and blisteringly true-to-life, “Mother and Child” will shatter your opinion (positive or negative) of what a chick flick is supposed to be, and will move you in ways you never thought possible.

Theatrical poster for "Mother and Child" (Sony Pictures Classics)
Theatrical poster for "Mother and Child" (Sony Pictures Classics)
The film is available on Region 2 DVD and to stream on Vudu, Amazon Prime, and Apple TV+.
‘Mother and Child’ Director: Rodrigo Garcia Starring: Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Smits MPAA Rating: R Running Time: 2 hours, 5 minutes Release Date: May 7, 2010 Rating: 4 out of 5
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Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on FloridaManRadio.com. Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.
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