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Mother and Child -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
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TORONTO -- Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia is a master of multiple narratives whose storylines often crisscross in unexpected ways. He deploys this strategy most effectively in "Mother and Child," a happy-sad tale of a mother and daughter, separated at birth, who struggle with the damage done by the most important person missing in their lives. Some may find the film overly schematic, but Garcia smartly uses three parallel narratives to probe the extraordinary nature of motherhood.

Like many of Garcia's films, "Mother and Child" plays very well to adult female audiences. Thanks to a name cast -- his scripts attract major talent -- the film should carve out a niche for itself in specialty venues and on cable television.

The film opens simply with two 14-year-olds making out. The resulting unplanned pregnancy leads to a birth and a brief, poignant glance at the infant by her mother before it is whisked away for immediate adoption.

Thirty-seven years later, we witness the powerful, painful effect this separation has had on the two women. Annette Bening's Karen, the mother, has never married. She cares for her invalid mother (Eileen Ryan), the author of that fateful decision, and interacts coolly, even awkwardly with other people.

Naomi Watts' Elizabeth has buried herself in legal work and loveless sex. She's fiercely independent but drifts from law firm to law firm, her only goal being a judgeship.

A third storyline follows another unwanted pregnancy and an adoption process. Kerry Washington's Lucy can't have children so with her husband (David Ramsey) she is set up by a Catholic agency to meet a young expectant mother willing to give up the baby if she finds them acceptable. The woman is not easily satisfied.

There is bitterness in Karen and brittleness in Elizabeth that cause each to be abrupt and demanding in human interactions. Elizabeth won't admit, even to herself, that she wants to confront the woman who gave her up as a teenager. Karen hardly focuses on her life of today, having never gotten over either her young lover or the baby she blames her mother for taking away from her.

A fellow worker, played by Jimmy Smits, wants to go out with Karen but she is unable to even treat him civilly until her mother dies. Meanwhile, Elizabeth also gets involved with a co-worker, actually her boss, Samuel L. Jackson, at a Los Angeles law firm.

The desperation Lucy feels to get a baby underscores the emptiness in the lives of Karen and Elizabeth. Sorrow, anxiety, hope and denial run through these parallel lives. The three remarkable actresses wonderfully play one of the hardest things of all - ambivalence.

Neither Karen nor Elizabeth is actually certain they do want to meet - until they are hesitantly certain. Lucy wants a baby almost more for her husband, but when trouble comes between them she surprises herself by wanting it even more.

Garcia eventually puts the three stories on a collision course. This is where you are most aware of the schematic nature of his narratives. But it serves his purpose and his purpose is to show the enormous strength of the mother-child bond.

As with all of Garcia's chamber pieces, the crafts behind the camera come together with such smoothness. Edward Shearmur's quiet, understated music heightens the war of emotions while Xavier Perez Grobet's lensing and Christopher Tandon's design underscore the themes of each story: Karen's tidy, suburban emptiness, Elizabeth's risk-taking in high-rises and Lucy's battles all in close quarters.

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival 2009
Production companies: Mockingbird Pictures/Everest Entertainment
Cast: Naomi Watts, Annette Bening, Kerry Washington, Jimmy Smits, Samuel L. Jackson, S. Epatha Merkerson, Cherry Jones
Director/screenwriter: Rodrigo Garcia
Producers: Lisa Maria Falcone, Julie Lynn
Executive producer: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Director of photography: Xavier Grobet
Production designer: Christopher Tandon
Music: Edward Shearmur
Costume designer: Susie DeSanto
Editor: Steven Weisberg
Sales: WestEnd Films
No rating, 126 minutes