Now in her early 50s, Karen (Annette Bening) still lives with her mom, a reticent woman with vacant eyes, housebound and it seems not long for this world. Karen works as a physical therapist for the elderly. We know Karen had a child at 14 whom she gave her up for adoption. We hear the maudlin unsent letters Karen still writes to this daughter she never knew, and we sense that there’s something terribly sad about this woman who forfeited her opportunity to care for a child so that she could spend her life caring for the aged. Karen is socially impaired, lonely, angry, and wears dumpy clothing. She’s unkind to her housekeeper. Still, she’s weirdly sympathetic. You wish her the best.
Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) by contrast has turned her own difficult, controlling nature into something of a social asset. She’s a reputable lawyer, fiercely independent, without any familial ties, very self-assured, beguilingly attractive, sensual without sentiment. She’s seduces her not-easily-seduced new boss (Samuel L. Jackson) in a heartbeat, and nabs her dopey married neighbour as a side dish. It’s no mystery that Elizabeth is Karen’s daughter, and the fact that they both inhabit Los Angeles, that they both inhabit this movie, conspicuously titled Mother and Child, prompts us to speculate how they’ll eventually reunite. That such expectations are never fulfilled in any sort of obvious or predictable way is a testament of sorts to the storytelling skills of writer/director Rodrigo García.
But García’s feats of plot-twisting slight of hand also constitute all that’s finally most frustrating and annoying in Mother and Child. Much like the work of its executive producer, Babel director Alejandro González Iñárritu, the movie betrays it’s finer qualities in an over-extended final act riddled with blasts of dramatic irony that feel as contrived as so many earlier scenes feel honest, thoughtful, and highly attuned to the peculiar and unnerving ways we negotiate our relationships. There’s a third storyline here, involving Lucy (Kerry Washington) and her attempts to adopt a child, and the presence of this seemingly unrelated thread should, I suppose, be a major tip-off to the sort of Paul Haggisy, too-neatly tied-up ending we’re slowly moving toward.
The restraint exhibited in certain exchanges between characters, exchanges that often resemble interrogations, is striking. The bits of dialogue whittled down to the bone, sometimes down to simple declarations, are intriguing. Editor Steven Weisberg has an immaculate sense of when to exit a scene, which is to say he always leaves as early as possible, yet never too soon. The performances are uniformly inviting while never being ingratiating. Bening and the exceptionally perfectly cast Watts are never more watchable than when seemingly trying to push others away. Jackson, in bow-tie and glasses, with graying beard, and Jimmy Smits, who plays a cuddly, baffled love interest for Bening, are effortlessly endearing in their inability to resist these pushy, off-putting women, the sort of flawed but resilient mother figures who form the core of García’s world view. There’s so many appealing aspects to Mother and Child, so many items to lure us in, that the over-calculated series of last act revelations, all timed to go off in rapid, numbing succession, to ostensibly give the audience its big emotional release, become a major let down even if you see them coming a mile away. I just lauded Weisberg for his judicious trimming, but there’s one additional cut he could have made that might have saved the whole movie, one that would have occurred right at the end of that scene were Watts drops off a letter at the adoption agency, the scene that assures us that everything is changing, when there still remained a balance of ambiguity and conclusiveness in keeping with all that’s most eloquent and memorable in Mother and Child.