If You're Neither a Mother Nor a Child, You're Nothing 

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Mother and Child
Directed by Rodrigo García

Essentializing, sexist melodramas are rarely so repulsively enjoyable. Despite its regressive sexual politics—by which women who are bad at being mothers and daughters die—and soap opera pacing, Rodrigo García's web-like Los Angeles parenting pic stays centered thanks to excellent and audacious performances by its three lead actresses. Whether García's penchant for fractured narratives comes from his friend and fellow filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu (who executive produced) or his father, author Gabriel García Márquez, he continually, cursorily investigates tangents and tertiary characters half-heartedly, often undermining the emotional intensity of his script and cast. Despite those lulls, Mother and Child proceeds with brutal contractions and sweet releases, birthing a bizarrely cruel theory of femininity.

Negotiating the film's rigid female model becomes the three leads' major challenge as they struggle to be good mothers and daughters. Annette Bening and Kerry Washington's bold, transformative performances as career women craving kids salvage the film from becoming the Crash of motherhood movies. As Bening strips away her character Karen's snarky, short-tempered instincts and puts her foot in her mouth progressively less frequently, her re-awakening to life, however sappy, is never a sure thing. Just as Karen seems to open up, so Washington's newly divorced, infertile, aspiring adopter Lucy focuses her vision and strips away her world until the only thing she can see is the child she's angling for. (One of those aforementioned unnecessary subplots involves the young pregnant woman, played by Shareeka Epps, planning to give her child to Lucy against her mother's wishes.)

Mother and Child's biggest problem, both politically and narratively, is that its major pleasures, Karen and Lucy's rebirths, somehow become contingent on the killing of Naomi Watts' character. Her castrating, home-wrecking, emotionally dormant and quickly climbing corporate lawyer Elizabeth—Karen's daughter whom she gave up for adoption at birth when she was 14—evokes a neo-femme fatale from David Lynch or Pedro Almodovar. Her icy facade barely breaks into a sweat as she mounts her new boss (Samuel Jackson) and directs their Cronenbergian sex scene like a dominatrix: "Don't move, old man." Like Karen and Lucy, Elizabeth begins to glow with the approaching warmth of motherhood, but apparently not enough to prove her child-caring credentials.

The more fundamental problem seems to be that this unapologetic career woman has aspirations other than motherhood. Meanwhile, Karen and Lucy are already professional parents of sorts: the former is a physical therapist for the elderly, the latter owns and operates a pastry shop. Mother and Child's unrelenting marginalization of male characters, to the point that their absence becomes conspicuous, marks another indicator of its weirdly arcane sexism. David Morse, as Karen's grown-up childhood boyfriend, the unwitting father of Elizabeth, has one scene and two lines, both of which are some version of: "I don't know what to say." Jimmy Smits, as Karen's co-worker and love interest, David Ramsey as Lucy's (ex-)husband and Jackson get a few more chances to speak, but figure mostly as sturdy, silent pillars of masculinity, perfect for our heroines to knock into, cry against and work their ways around. And as moving as those struggles can be, they can't shake the unsettlingly neo-Victorian agenda that Mother and Child offers up to the audience for adoption.

Opens May 7

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