Mother and Child gets a star for each of its female leads: Annette Bening, Naomi Watts and Kerry Washington. Doesn’t add up but that’s poetic justice. How is it that Rodrigo García, who counts among his credits simmering series (The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and In Treatment) and who carries the blood of a legendary novelist - Gabriel García Márquez is his father - has written and directed such protracted tedium?

No favours have been done to this sprawling and shapeless relationship drama by constantly featuring downbeat lobby music. Quality aside, music associated with public spaces has no business in a film world made up of stuffy private and professional rooms. Imagine if, as you sat flicking through an old copy of Hello! in a doctor’s waiting room, someone plugged a keyboard into a Marshall amp and blasted out nondescript melancholia. This inappropriate intrusion on a lo-fi world grates throughout.

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Stoically attempting to launch their storylines are Karen (Bening), Elizabeth (Watts) and Lucy (Washington), each modeling a different mother/daughter dilemma. Karen gave Elizabeth up for adoption after falling pregnant at 14. Despite living in the same city, LA, 37 years later they’ve yet to meet again. The absent relationship is causing Karen deep unhappiness and Elizabeth deep cynicism. Infertile Lucy, a seemingly unconnected character, is going down the adoption route with her husband. What we’re wondering is how these three characters will come together and what we’re going to learn in the process.

The first lesson – call it a post-American Beauty booster-course - is that Bening gives a great performance as a woman so brittle every scene carries the risk of a crack up. In between caring for her ill mother and writing letters she’ll never send to Elizabeth, there’s not much scope for joy until a new therapist shows up at her hospital workplace. He’s interested in Karen and remains undeterred by her sharp edges until an extraordinary tomato-generated freak out. It’s a striking scene bringing to light the tragically irrational nature of paranoia.

Bening’s performance is a triumph over leaden writing. Lines such as, “You want what you want. Your willful nature is part of your charm,” suggest García doesn’t trust his audience to work his characters out unchaperoned. Overwriting may be a symptom of his insecurity as Mother And Child is gunning to be both broad and deep - discussions on the existence of God are thrown in as casually as pop culture references in a Tarantino. Taking place across a tumultuous year and featuring birth, death, marriage, infidelity and divorce, it strives ambitiously towards epic status, a shame because where García excels is in the small details: a mistress slipping her knickers into a betrayed wife’s drawer or Elizabeth straight-facedly introducing Samuel L Jackson’s character as her father.

Small daily interactions, not the succession of dramatic but boring twists, are where the characters get a chance to breathe. Insights about the shaping effects of mother-daughter relationships are certainly present but struggle to emerge and are long since spent by the time the plot heaves itself over the finish line.

Reviewed on: 15 Apr 2012
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Tale of three women and maternal love.
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