As the title suggests, Rodrigo García’s deeply affecting new drama, Mother and Child, lays bare the life-changing force of motherhood with dynamic bittersweet, harrowing and raw moments from its stellar cast. Annette Bening gives one of her most enigmatic and painfully frank performances yet that cuts direct to the core.
The story follows three women: a 50-year-old called Karen (Bening) who had to give up her daughter at a young age for adoption, over 35 years ago, and wonders and torments herself every day at what happened to her; an ambitious and promiscuous lawyer called Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) who falls pregnant; and a successful, married businesswoman called Lucy (Kerry Washington) who is desperate for a child, but cannot conceive and is looking to adopt.
García’s tour de force is in the casting of the film, with three very different performances from three very strong actresses who have one defiant edge, desperate to find happiness in some form and a reason for ‘living’. It all sounds melodramatic, and it could be dismissed as TV feature theatrics, if it wasn’t for these wonderfully believable performances that cement the three stories. Naturally, their experiences converge, and that is another part of García’s magic in wondering just how the loose ends will tie up? When it happens, it might be deemed a trifle sentimental for some and too neat and tidy. But it is as though García’s characters have suffered enough heartache throughout that such an ending is acceptable – even if one story brings tragedy.
Without a doubt, Bening is the linchpin of the whole affair, proving once more as in the touchingly funny The Kids Are All Right as Nic that she has just the right angst and bittersweet nuances for such a role to never make the character seem superficial, but rounded and deeply layered in thought and action, but without losing the humour in any harrowing situation. As acidic-tongued Karen, we sense a deep-rooted pain and troubled soul; the question is when will it manifest that is part of the poignant journey you make with her.
In an equally defensive stance as Elizabeth, Watts matches Bening’s masterfully tart responses and the link between the pair soon becomes apparent, but is still worth watching being brought to fruition. Each actress expertly carves out emotionally warmer moments that compliment the colder, withdrawn ones, in order to keep an element of energy and empathy alive for both at all times.
The seemingly ‘odd’ injection into the story, but equally relevant, is that of Washington who spends most of the film on another acting plane from the other two who appear to be drifting through life, and is merely as a reminder of all those ‘out there’ desperate to feel motherhood at any cost – like an affecting advert for the trials and tribulations of adoption. Lucy’s journey – as the other two women – points motherhood dominating an adult existence, bringing both pain and happiness and switching between both.
What makes the women’s journey more compelling is the supporting male cast who allow their drama and courage to take centre stage. Samuel L. Jackson as law firm partner Paul who gets involved with Elizabeth is surprisingly tender and submissive from the usual role we get to see him in. It shows the actor’s refreshing variety but his strength of character is still very much felt. Jimmy Smits as Paco gets to bat off inappropriately defensive comments from nurse Karen, like a seasoned tennis pro, keeping his male nurse character virtuous and our judgement fully reserved for Karen. García’s male observations many depict his women as ‘emotionally challenged’ but there is an underlying respect for the female psyche, too, that is very apparent and is gently mirrored in the actions of his male cast.
Mother and Child’s central performances are well established and gripping from the start. Although verging on melodrama at times, the story’s honesty about a topic that is quite a tough one for some women is delicately handled with lighter moments of irony. García’s film is an exploration of the full spectrum of feelings that motherhood – or lack of – brings and is both challenging and entertaining in equal measure.