Mother Of George begins with a wedding, which is not the best omen for its characters. When was the last time a drama opened with this most joyful of occasions and then didn't plummet into a less-than-rosy aftermath? In Andrew Dosunmu’s somber American indie, the trouble starts before the ceremony has even ended. While dancers in vibrant African dress sway to uptempo tunes, the beaming Nigerian bride (Danai Gurira, who plays Michonne on The Walking Dead) is taken aside by her new mother-in-law (Bukky Ajayi). Her duty, the older woman reminds her, is to provide a child for her husband, the Brooklyn restauranteur (Isaach De Bankolé) who’s brought her to the States. But what if, God forbid, they can't conceive? In that case, desperate measures will have to be taken. One way or another—and the ways are determined by who’s got the “problem” equipment—a baby will enter the picture.
Like the recent Fill The Void, with which it shares a gauzy digital aesthetic, Mother Of George explores the marital pressures put on members of a hermetic subculture—in this case, African immigrants scraping by in New York City. In that sense, it’s admirably specific, but the richness of detail doesn’t really extend to the characters themselves. Provided with problems and desires, not quirks of personality or interior lives, Gurira and De Bankolé are defined almost exclusively by the single conflict burdening their marriage (and by the unfortunate “solution” arrived upon). The actors are both superb, conveying suppressed feeling through falters in their perpetual poker faces. (De Bankolé is particularly gifted at this form of through-clenched-jaw emoting.) But the movie sometimes distracts from its performances, drowning the material in a lot of gorgeous but ostentatious style.
Director Andrew Dosunmu (Restless City) dealt in still pictures before switching to moving ones; like many photographers-turned-filmmakers, he sometimes values the perfection of his images over the drama they depict. With the help of cinematographer Bradford Young, who brought a similarly dreamy quality to Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Dosunmu turns the cityscape backdrop into a smeary blur of colors, isolates fragments of faces and bodies, and swipes a few moves from Wong Kar Wai (the blissful slow-mo, the blotting out of a portion of the screen with darkness). As a result, Mother Of George is rarely boring to look at, but it might still have been better served by a starker, less showy aesthetic. Late in the film, a heated conversation between Gurira and De Bankolé unfolds through the reflection of a mirror—a trick the camera reveals mid-conversation. That’s the sort of hotshot gesture that steals the focus from the actors, and at the exact moment when their interactions should take precedence. Where’s the handheld purity of the Dardenne Brothers when you need it?