"Mother and Child": Naomi Watts Gives Strong Performance in Lackluster Movie

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by Tony Dayoub

In contemporary cinema, Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel) has created a whole cottage industry around melodramas starring ensemble casts in which seemingly disconnected plotlines ultimately converge to impart some moral lesson. So it is no surprise to see his name attached (as executive producer) to Mother and Child, a drama about motherhood, child abandonment, and adoption written and directed by Rodrigo García. While I'm no fan of Iñárritu's heavyhanded approach to what is already supposed to be a rather high-strung genre, what attracted me to see this film is director García, who I discovered for his sensitive attention to actors when he was writing, directing, and showrunning HBO's wonderful psychodrama In Treatment, a show so unlike any other, I once listed its serialized first season as one of the best films of 2008. Just as in that series, Mother and Child's strongest component is the acting by its uniformly spectacular cast.

The first half of Mother and Child is quite promising as it slowly sets up the world of these characters. At the center of the story are two career peak performances by Annette Bening (American Beauty) and Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive), playing a lonely, bitter physical therapist and the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was fourteen, respectively. A third, infertile woman (Kerry Washington) is accompanied by her husband through the rigorous adoption process. The introverted Bening has neither gotten past the trauma of losing her child or forgiven her aged mother for making her give the baby up. Watts has grown up to be a prominent, but emotionally chilly attorney who sexually manipulates men—including her boss (Samuel L. Jackson) and an expectant father living next door—as a way of staying in tight control. Washington is moving forward so quickly, she is often chided by her mom (S. Epatha Merkerson) for seeking a child simply to prove her worth to her husband.

The plot turns are easily anticipated. Though Bening's initial meeting with Jimmy Smits (NYPD Blue)—the new therapist at her clinic—is played discordantly, it's no surprise they'll end up together. And given Watts' hubris, it's no shock to see her take some spills, falling a little harder for Jackson (Pulp Fiction) than she expected or finding out she is pregnant with his child. The most predictable plot turn is Washington's discovery that her husband is not into the idea of adopting because he always wanted a child biologically his own.

These plot reversals are endemic to the melodrama. If you are willingly watching Mother and Child, then you have already given it a pass for manipulating you up to a point. Growing up in an Hispanic household, I am comfortable with the overwrought expressions of torment which characterize the Spanish-language telenovelas which always played in the background, a fact I became aware of after I was one of only a few applauding Almodóvar's latest tragedy in a room full of hardened New York critics. So up to this point, Mother and Child is surprising because of the remarkable restraint of its illustrations of adversity found in the complex and involving characters (mostly due to incredible delineations by its cast) it is drawing.

But halfway into Mother and Child, García takes a narrative leap so ill-timed, it is as if he looked at his watch and realized that the running time was bearing down on the movie like an oncoming truck. Each character stops being true to themselves in order to fulfill a role required by the story. Bening becomes kind and outgoing in order to reach out to her long lost daughter. Watts quits her high paying legal career to transform into a sensitive, maternal social worker.

The most egregious example is Kerry Washington's single mother, who up to that moment is so resolute in her conviction she can be a good mother. After this flashforward, her character disappears for quite a while, only to return as an afterthought and reduced to a sniveling whiner when she buckles under the pressure of caring for a new child. (As Washington gripes to her mom, García gets points for giving Merkerson's character a line which the audience is dying to scream, "Grow the fuck up, and stop whining. You think you're the first person to have to deal with being a mother?") It is Washington's storyline which is the least thought out, and it shows.

It is at this mid-point Mother and Child falls apart. All the time García spends setting up character tics and quirks is laid waste because the protagonists begin behaving according to the constraints of the overplotted script as it tries to draw together its disparate storylines into an epiphanic moment. Too bad, because for a while there, Mother and Child was shaping up to be a nice return for a long neglected class of film.