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PARK CITY — The vibrant evocation of a particular ethnic community in New York City goes only so far in sustaining rapt interest in Mother of George, a pictorially unusual but dramatically listless tale of how longstanding traditions impinge on the lives of a young Nigerian couple trying to conceive a baby. A narrow thematic focus and a severely claustrophobic visual scheme will limit admiration of this seriously intentioned work to the artier realms of the festival and independent circuits.
Nigerian-born director Andrew Dosunmu’s first feature, Restless City, which focused on a Senegalese musician eking out a living in New York selling CDs, bowed in the Next section at Sundance two years ago. The first 12 minutes of his new film immerse the viewer in Nigerian traditions by way of an elegant wedding ceremony drenched in stunning fabrics, colors, faces and music, all in the service of celebrating the marriage of the beautiful Adenike (Danai Gurira) and Ayodele (Isaach De Bankole).
Naturally, part of the golden-hued ritual involves prayers and wishes for the couple’s fertility, a notion rubbed in when the groom’s pushy, borderline batty mother (Bukky Ajayi) gives the bride the robe in which she carried her infant son and summarily announces that her first-born will be named George. In another, no doubt unofficial part of the evening, Ayodele’s buddies privately offer him advice on the dos and don’ts of fooling around as a married man.
But, as in real life, the wondrous aura of the wedding soon recedes as real life takes over, and Adenike’s life becomes all about the general expectations of her having a baby. And so does the film. There are scenes involving Ayodele and his brother Biyi (Tony Okungbowa) at the small restaurant they run, including one in which they kill a goat out back that will insure that the film will never carry the usual “No Animals Were Harmed” logo on the end credits.
But mostly the focus is on the increasingly beleaguered Adenike who, over many months, comes to suspect that either she or her husband may have a medical procreation problem. He refuses to be tested, however, old country mores come into play and, after much agonizing and crying, Adenike reaches the end of her tether.
Unfortunately, Darci Picoult’s original screenplay offers few dramatic scenes between husband and wife, as he seems disinclined to get to the bottom of the problem. Adenike is genuinely torn between Yoruba traditions and the modern world she now lives in. But as the former are constantly pushed on her by those closest to her, especially by her mother-in-law, who proposes that Biyi secretly father the child, she cannot blithely toss them aside and assert herself as an independent American woman.
A former creative director and photographer for Yves Saint Laurent and a veteran of music videos, Dosunmu clearly has strong visual ideas and, once again teaming with rising cinematographer Bradford Young, who won a Sundance prize for shooting Pariah two years ago, he stresses tightly framed shots with very short focal lengths that shut out the wider world around his characters and emphasize the intense pressure on Adenike.
The results are often striking on a shot-by-shot basis, but they don’t connect with one another in a way that flows or provides the film with a visual dynamic that progressively builds to something greater than its individual compositions. Instead, the film comes to feel flat, both in terms of its pictorial range and dramatic effect.
The always dependable De Bankole could have used more to do, his character emerging as less than sympathetic due to his increasingly distant and recalcitrant behavior. Gurira has magnetism and generates considerable empathy, although much of that is automatically built into the character.
To the extent that brings to light a little-considered American community, Mother of George commands a certain interest, but its actual accomplishment is decidedly modest.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production: Parts & Labor, Cunningham & Maybach Films, Fried Alligator Films, SimonSays Entertainment
Cast: Isaach De Bankole, Danai Gurira, Tony Okungbowa, Yaya Alafia, Bukky Ajayi
Director: Andrew Dosunmu
Screenwriter: Darci Picoult
Producers: Lars Knudsen, Jay Van Hoy, Matt Parker, Carly Hugo, Darci Picoult, Chris Maybach, Saemi Kim, Patrick Cunningham, Tony Okungbowa
Executive producers: Laura Bernieri, Isaach De Bakole, Andre Des Rochers, Saerom Kim, Jawal Nga, David Raymond, Fady Salame, Rhea Scott, Ron Simons, Joseph Sorrentino, Jerry Tankersley
Director of photography: Bradford Young
Production designer: Lucio Seixas
Costume designer: Mobolaji Dawodu
Editor: Oriana Soddu
Music: Philip Miller
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