Rodrigo Garcia’s “Mother and Child” is like a math equation whose inevitability doesn’t diminish its crisp clarity of truth. Or, in the case of this movie, emotional truth.
Schematic though it may be, “Mother and Child” packs a punch, though a graceful one, to be sure. It unwraps its surprises in ways that pay off as the movie goes on.
The subject is adoption, as it has touched three different lives. One is Karen (Annette Bening), a physical therapist who is middle-aged and single and still lives with her ailing mother. She’s a prickly, defensive woman who, we discover, still suffers regrets from the decision – made by her mother – to give up the baby Karen had as a 15-year-old and move on with her life.
The second is Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), an ice-veined and ambitious attorney who has no strong family ties to speak of. She is a self-sufficient single who was given up for adoption as a baby and reared by adoptive parents. But she is a lone wolf, wary of emotional entanglements.
The third is Lucy (Kerry Washington), who learns that, though they desperately want children, she and her husband are unable to conceive. So they find a pregnant teen and convince her that they are the perfect couple to raise the baby she’s not prepared to parent. But Lucy discovers that her husband has stronger feelings about the topic of adoption than he was willing to admit.
Each of these three characters slips in and out of the alternating roles of mother and child, to each other and in their daily lives. Though the plotline pulls the three central characters together in a not-wholly-unexpected way, Garcia keeps his film fluid without tipping his hand about twists.
Each of the women feels incomplete in ways she can’t explain, perhaps even to herself. There is a connection that has been broken, one that no other tie can replace. They struggle well into their adult lives before they’re able to take steps toward reconnection.
Bening plays Karen with a mixture of sadness and high-strung anger. She finds that flinchy quality of someone used to being the brunt of unkind remarks, who can’t quite find a personal rhythm to deal with positive attention when it comes.
Watts is her opposite: flinty and flirty and very me-first. There’s a hunger to Watts’ performance, though it may also be the need to devour before being devoured. Washington, by contrast, is the caring, thoughtful young woman who longs desperately to nurture another human being by being a mother. The male roles are smaller but meaningful, including Samuel L. Jackson in an unexpected turn as Elizabeth’s easily enticed boss and Jimmy Smits, as a colleague of Karen who eventually finds a way to breach her significant defenses.
Motherhood is as powerful a force as any other human imperative, something Garcia gets at without ever stating it explicitly. “Mother and Child” explores that eternal bond with a sense of drama that is touching and affecting.