A web of coincidence and unseen connections nets together a disparate group of Los Angelenos in, well, a lot of movies over the last few years. That description fits Mother And Child as well, a film produced by Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director behind such template-setting everything’s-connected films as 21 Grams and Babel. But in other respects, Mother And Child doesn’t fit the usual pattern. Writer/director Rodrigo Garcia (Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her, Nine Lives) stays away from Iñárritu’s hard ironies, bringing a more delicate touch to Mother And Child and setting it in a world where the possibility of finding love and happiness hasn’t disappeared forever, even if it sometimes looks that way.
For reasons not immediately clear, the film revolves around Naomi Watts, who plays a professionally accomplished, self-contained lawyer who makes no attempt to hide her unwillingness to forge attachments of any kind, even telling new boss Samuel L. Jackson she’d prefer to report to a man because she’s “not part of the sisterhood.” Watts’ Los Angeles is filled with women living as public exiles. Annette Bening co-stars as a brittle physical therapist caring for her dying mother and still haunted by the child she gave up for adoption as a teenager. Unable to conceive, and married to a man with a family eager to see him become a father, Kerry Washington tries to navigate the tricky adoption process, which in her case includes a demanding teenage mother-to-be (Half Nelson’s Shareeka Epps) with a habit of rejecting adoptive families for her unborn child.
Garcia shoots Mother And Child with minimal flair, an approach that keeps the focus squarely on the cast, whose moving work helps pave over some of the narrative’s lumpier patches. His characters never hold their tongues, and they speak in dialogue free from the polite evasions of everyday conversation. It would feel overly theatrical if Watts, Bening, and Washington didn’t convey the vulnerability beneath every firm demurral, lacerating insult, and refusal to engage. (An impressive supporting cast that includes Jimmy Smits, Cherry Jones, S. Epatha Merkerson, and others helps, too.) Threatened by intimacy, each finds ways to avoid it, whether through anger or dangerous erotic games or a need to keep moving forward with a singular focus regardless of the cost. Each in their own way, they’re women on the run in a film whose focus—slowly and movingly—shifts to capturing the cost of running too far for too long.