Mother and Child

Starring Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, Samuel Jackson and Kerry Washington. Directed by Rodrigo García.
Rated MA 15+ (strong sex scenes and coarse language). 125 mins.

To be frank, the storylines created by writer-director Rodrigo García for Mother And Child are the stuff of pure television daytime soap opera. But seldom, if ever, have they been written and acted and directed with such delicacy, verity and skill.

García’s exceptional film is about death, the maternal instinct, motherhood, single parenting and adoption — the whole landscape of mothers and children told through the lives of a disparate group of characters that will stay in your mind not just because of the flawless performances but because it touches on the very essence of being human. Even religion and belief in God gets an airing in what impresses as a well-rounded and satisfyingly complete scenario (despite a couple of minor loose ends not being tied up before the end credits roll).

It is set in Los Angeles, and the pivotal character in the central family tree is Karen (Annette Bening), a middle-aged woman who is single and lives with her frail and ill elderly mother, with whom she has an uneasy relationship. Karen does not make friends easily because she is prickly and quick to offend. Neither is she a happy person, because deep down is a feeling of emptiness borne of the fact that the baby she had when she was 14 was given up for adoption, and she has no idea what happened to the child, who would be a woman of 37 by now.

Exactly that age is Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), a powerhouse attorney and sexual predator determined to get to the top in her profession. She joins a LA law firm whose principal (Samuel L, Jackson) she seduces. She also seduces the husband of her next-door neighbour, then leaves her panties neatly folded in the wife’s underwear drawer — her way of saying she calls the shots. But her brash exterior conceals a secret that has been gnawing away at her: she was adopted the moment she was born and has no idea who her mother was.

But life wreaks changes. Karen meets a kind, patient man (Jimmy Smits), who brings out her latent niceness and persuades her to take steps to track down her long lost daughter. Elizabeth finds herself pregnant and, refusing to have an abortion, determines to raise the child and, what’s more, find out about her own mother because her baby will have a right to know its origins.

A parallel story is that of Lucy (Kerry Washington), a young black wife who is unable to conceive so, with the help of a Catholic adoption agency and a nun played sweetly but uncloyingly by Cherry Jones, she seeks to adopt the baby of an expectant teenager. This girl proves to be very particular about who will be the mother of her baby, and the path to becoming adoptive parents is anything but smooth for Lucy and her husband.

The various strands are drawn together cleverly as the plots progress, and there is a twist at the end that is unexpected and more than touching and will probably do wonders for the sales of pocket tissues. Yes, it’s a bit of a weepie, but it’s also a superbly crafted film. Watts, Bening and Washington are outstanding in a terrific cast, and García’s direction is as elegant as his script is insightful. There is some language and two candid sex scenes, but for the most part this is a film in which adult issues are played in an unsensational manner for the pleasure of discerning adult audiences.

Hopscotch  Out June 17

Mr Jim Murphy is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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