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Mother and Child: The plot swells but never delivers

Annette Bening as Karen and Jimmy Smits as Paco in Mother and Child.

Ralph Nelson / Sony Pictures Classics/Ralph Nelson / Sony Pictures Classics

2 out of 4 stars


Mother and Child

  • Directed and written by Rodrigo Garcia
  • Starring Naomi Watts, Annette Bening, Samuel L. Jackson
  • Classification: 18A

In the beginning, a 14-year-old child gives birth to a child and, as the consequences ripple through the ensuing decades, fate's disorderly mess makes for an incongruously neat film. That's the problem with these portmanteau dramas, the kind that introduce a passel of apparently disparate characters and gradually connect the dots. Almost inevitably, the connections seem too contrived and their emerging pattern too symmetrical. When the plot thickens, so does our resistance to it and to the tidy resolution. Mother and Child rightly asserts that life's facts can be messy, but then wrongly insists that it's fiction's job to clean them up.

The setting is as generic as the title - vaguely in L.A., where the young mother relinquished that baby for adoption. Thirty-seven years later, Karen (Annette Bening) is still consumed by the loss. Unmarried, with a cold and abrupt manner, she works as a physical therapist by day, returning home to care for her own ailing mother, but clinically, at an emotional remove. At night, alone in her room, Karen writes letters she never sends to a daughter she's never known.

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But we soon do. Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) has grown into a successful lawyer who, in our first glimpse of her, is applying for a job with the head honcho of a big corporate firm. Paul (Samuel L. Jackson) hires her on the spot and, a few scenes later, she has artfully seduced the guy. Elizabeth is as cold as her birth mother, yet far more calculating and infinitely more confident - she's sufficient unto herself, a legal barracuda with no wish to wed or procreate.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the city, procreation is much on Lucy's mind. Unable to conceive, she (Kerry Washington) has convinced her reluctant husband to go the adoption route. Together, they visit a Catholic agency that puts them on to a pregnant college student who, if the prospective parents pass her rigorous interview, may be willing to part with her baby. Or may not. You can see how the cast is already multiplying, how the plot is swelling, and how the dots await their connection.

But the three women - Karen the absentee mother, Lucy the wannabe mother, Elizabeth the anti-mother - are merely the isolated principals at the centre of the stage. Around them circle a host of secondary figures charged with the narrative task of bringing the trio together. There's a whole bunch of them, popping in and out of the story, often at the whim of coincidence and always with the aim of getting us to that tidy ending, where birth and death and suffering and separation can all be tied together, then shown to have an overriding purpose and an optimistic point.

Nope, God doesn't play dice with the universe, and neither does Rodrigo Garcia with his screenplay. As writer and director, he's the master who's determined to prove that fate has a master plan. But if that wonder feels contrived, another is surprisingly credible: The cast is a lot more convincing than the script, notably Bening and Watts, especially early on. Then, Bening bravely allows her age to show on camera, using the lines etched around her mouth to suggest the bars in Karen's emotional prison, all that suppressed feeling calcified within. Just as perceptively, Watts reveals how that genetic trait has evolved in Elizabeth. It's the same prison but now the inmate is in cool control, turning an inner weakness into a scarily aggressive strength.

But it's tough for actors to be nuanced when the movie isn't, and these intriguingly jagged edges soon get smoothed out. Alas, amid all the animated congestion and purposeful movement of Mother and Child, nothing is truly alive - ultimately, even the good performances are stillborn.

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Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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