Permutations of motherhood

Mother and Child (MA). Writer-director: Rodrigo García. Starring: Annette Benning, Jimmy Smits, Namoi Watts, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, David Ramsey, Eileen Ryan, Shareeka Epps, Elpidia Carrillo

Annette Benning, Mother and Child movie'First a mother bathes her child/Then the other way around.' American indie folk rock poet Conor Oberst's line, from his band Bright Eyes' 2007 song 'If the Brakeman Turns My Way', notes a simple truth about motherhood. The relationship is not static, but evolves with time and circumstances. The image of an adult bathing his elderly mother is a romantic ideal of how age can invert the practical aspects while the central bond remains unchanged.

Mother and Child recognises this adaptability, while interrogating the nature of the bond itself. It scrutinises various permutations of motherhood — few of them traditional and not all of them biological — within a highly individualised suburban American society. Like Oberst, its vision of motherhood is romantic. But it is not uncomplicated.

There's 50-year-old Karen (Benning), who, as a teenager, gave her infant daughter up for adoption. Karen is a nurse, and is carer to her infirm mother (Ryan). Here we see the inversion Oberst alludes to, though there's a glum dutifulness in Karen's approach to both professional and personal carer roles. Her outlook is bitter and brittle.

Karen is courted and eventually won over by a friendly orderly, Paco (Smits), to whom she reveals that for her whole life she has defined herself as a mother, despite her daughter's estrangement. For Karen, the parental bond abides, and is strained miserably by physical absence. She eventually finds in the young daughter of her housekeeper (Carrillo) an object for her motherly instincts, but that is no permanent cure for her grief.

Elsewhere, 30-something Elizabeth (Watts) is forging a successful career as a lawyer. Her attitudes to family and career have been shaped by the fact that she was adopted out as a baby, and that her biological mother has never attempted to contact her. She disdains the very concept of family as an impediment to success. She treats sex and intimacy as playthings, even having had her tubes tied when she was 17.

Upon winning a job with a major law firm, Elizabeth commences an affair with her employer, Paul (Jackson). Paul himself is a widower, and has therefore taken on the role of mother-nurturer to his own adult children. When, against the odds and despite her extreme preventative efforts, Elizabeth falls pregnant, it challenges all her preconceptions about family. Perhaps her disdain was a mask for the pain of motherly abandonment. She's unwilling to inflict the same pain on her own unplanned-for child.

Meanwhile, young married couple Lucy and Joseph (Washington and Ramsey) are applying to adopt a baby. The biological mother is a precocious teenager Ray (Epps). Ray herself was born of an accidental pregnancy to a single mother and is under pressure to keep the child. Instead she expresses her love for the unborn child — and respects its dignity and its claim to a good life — by putting the prospective adoptive parents through a rigorous interview process. Even still, Ray may be naive in estimating the difficulty of finally giving the child up.

Adoption is shown to be a tumultuous process, as joyful and painful in its own way as pregnancy and birth. Lucy, we learn, is unable to conceive, but suspects that the motherly bond is about much more than biology. Joseph, by contrast, values biology greatly. Perhaps it is ironic that he shares the name of the father of Jesus who, in the biblical story, accepts parenthood as a divinely ordained state that transcends blood. In any case, the gap between his and his wife's values puts inevitable strain on their marriage and on their decision to adopt.

The film's power comes from its storytelling. Writer-director García was the main creative force behind the superb US television series In Treatment. That series dramatised in virtual real-time eight weeks' worth of sessions between a psychotherapist (played by Gabriel Byrne) and five of his patients. Both In Treatment and Mother and Child include, intimately but unobtrusively, scenes of charged dialogue that allow the actors to fully explore the emotional states of their characters, and the tensions and sympathies between their own and other characters.

The film's executive producer, Alejandro González Iñárritu, has previously toyed with non-linear storytelling structures in his own films, such as 21 Grams and Babel, in a way that invigorated what may otherwise have been pedestrian stories. In Mother and Child the seemingly disparate stories are interwoven in a way that amplifies each story's themes as well as their emotional impact when they ultimately converge.

Mother and Child is both familiar and fresh. It is obvious from an early stage that Elizabeth is Karen's estranged daughter. But the way in which their stories finally merge, and intertwine with Lucy's story, is surprising. There's a hint of providence in the resolution, although the film avoids easy religious allusions. Its one reference to the Virgin Mary, the Holy Mother of the Catholic tradition, comes in the form of a virtual throwaway line from an over-zealous young Catholic woman. Anything more earnest could have been seen as a cliché.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by Melbourne's The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.

Topic tags: Mother and Child, Rodrigo García, Annette Benning, Jimmy Smits, Namoi Watts, Samuel L Jackson



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