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Movie review: “Mother and Child” drama explores adoption’s effects

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The three wounded women in writer-director Rodrigo Garcia’s memorable drama, “Mother and Child,” are connected, and separated, by adoption.

The trio of Naomi Watts, Annette Bening and Kerry Washington touchingly convey just what varied forms emotional defense can take.

Better: As their characters’ interwoven tales gain force, they show how profoundly those defenses can crumble.

Elizabeth (Watts) is a cool customer. When she arrives at a law firm for a job interview, her confidence could daunt mere mortals. Female bosses, she tells not-so-cowed senior partner Paul (Samuel L. Jackson), can be “intimidated” by her. Later, she demonstrates why when she casually seduces a married neighbor. Her control issues come from having been given up for adoption.

Bening plays wincingly prickly Karen. At 14, Karen gave up her infant. Now an adult living with her aging mother (Eileen Ryan), she is a contradiction: a compassionate physical therapist with nettles. Whenever kind, interested co-worker Paco (Jimmy Smits) approaches her, she stings him. She resents her mother’s relationship with housekeeper Sofia (Elpidia Carrillo) and her young daughter. She writes a journal to the birth child she never knew.

Washington is brittle, hopeful Lucy. She and husband Joseph (David Ramsey of “Dexter”) embark on adopting a child. Sitting in a Catholic agency run by Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones), Lucy’s posture speaks of longing. Her nattering betrays fear and maybe even ambivalence. She talks so much that audiences are right to ponder what Joseph might be feeling.

A prospective birth mother (Shareeka Epps) arrives as the anti-Juno MacGuff, asking Lucy and Joseph tough questions, imposing rules, not caring a whit about making nice.

“Mother and Child” is rife with the uncomfortable worries that some adoptees, adoptive parents and birth moms (they are moms here, not birth parents) struggle with.

The menfolk in this “women’s picture” are not to be ignored. Jackson and Smits make sure of that. It’s a pleasure to see Jackson in a role where he’s not frothing, then chomping down on blue dialogue. As Paul, the law partner who hires Watts’ character, he’s smart. He also proves wise and wonderfully human as he gingerly opens himself to more than he bargained for with Elizabeth.

Smits is a charming pudge as Paco, who isn’t easily scared away by Karen’s yips and nips.

Consider “Mother and Child” a neomelodrama. It’s executive-produced by director Alejandro González Iñárritu, himself a practitioner of the form (“21 Grams”).

The rhythms are measured; the movie runs a bit over two hours. The situations can be so heightened as to tempt doubt. An unplanned pregnancy, a budding romance and a seismic shift in a marriage all figure in. When a blind girl befriends Elizabeth, it seems a bit much. But then, life can be a bit much.

Like 2008’s romantic drama “Two Lovers,” Garcia’s film is a reminder of how scarce adult dramas made in America have become. So many stories come packaged in hyped genres that we can forget how much character can hold sway.

Watts, Bening and Washington — along with a fine ensemble and a humane director — make sure we remember.

-Lisa Kennedy


“Mother and Child.”

R for sexuality, brief nudity, and language. 2 hours, 6 minutes. Written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia; photography by Xavier Perez Grobet; starring Naomi Watts, Annette Bening, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Smits, Cherry Jones, David Ramsey.Opens today at the Chez Artiste.

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