Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Rodrigo Garcia's MOTHER AND CHILD is the American film of the year so far

Is there a more humane and attentive (particularly to women) filmmaker than Rodrigo Garcia? On the basis of the three full-length films he has written and directed: the new MOTHER AND CHILD, Nine Lives and Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, I would doubt this.  When I first saw "Things You Can Tell" (back in 2000 -- Señor Garcia, in addition to doing a lot of work for cable television, seems to gift us with one full-length film every five years), I swore that it had to have been made by a woman.  I did not believe a man was capable of understanding, not to mention communicating at such a personal level, so much about women's lives.  Wrong.  That was my first experience -- a memorable one -- with a Garcia film.

Then came Nine Lives in 2005, another winner, and now Mother and Child, in which the filmmaker (shown at right) surpasses himself.  Which is saying something.  From the first image on the screen -- no dialog here -- we are pulled in to one of the oldest stories on earth but in a way that seems fresh and specific.  When the dialog starts, it is every bit as fine as those images: direct, real, neither spare nor profuse but exactly what is needed.  His theme here is what you would expect from the title, yet, although the routes Rodrigo takes to bring that theme to life are twisty and interconnected, his film-making style is simple and quiet.  He never shouts, though his characters sometimes do.

Several sets of characters overlap here: A physical therapist (Annette Bening, at left) who lives with her aged, sick mother (Eileen Ryan); a relatively young, hotshot lawyer (Naomi Watts, below, right) taking a job in a prestigious law firm owned by Samuel L. Jackson (below, left); a young couple (Kerry Washington and David Ramsey (shown two photos below and at bottom) who hope to adopt an about-to-be born baby from a young unwed mother (Shareeka Epps).  Of course, these people connect eventually (some are con-
nected already), yet plot is the last thing you will be worrying about because each incident is so well-
written & performed that the movie quickly takes on its own sense of wonder, as one splendid scene follows another, and another.


Yes, we have seen all this before, and yet Garcia makes it new.  Death that comes suddenly and quietly.  A sex scene as hot as any you'll have viewed of late (except perhaps Eyes Wide Open), in which the couple stays fully clothed. (More important here is how the female's need for control is played out in her sexual behavior.)   When a new character (essayed by the always fine David Morse) is introduced, we know immediately who he is without any explanation except the brilliant moment-by-moment acting by Ms Bening, who nails her abrasive, sad, needy character and then ever-so-slowly begins to let her breathe.

Ms Watts, too, is exceptional.  She at last makes good on the pro-
mise she showed us in Mulholland Dr.  She's always been believ-
able, but her subsequent career has so far had to do with mostly mediocre roles she's been asked to play (Le Divorce is an excep-
tion -- and an exceptionally misunderstood movie).  It was clear she had it in her, and here she lets it out -- in a role to die for.  Jimmy Smits is wonderful, too.  He's aging well, putting on a bit of weight, and growing into a stalwart older man. When Bening asks him, "Where did you come from?" you'll know exactly what she means.

Elpidia Carillo (above, in the center of the threesome), Elizabeth Pena, Amy Brenneman -- all alumni of the Garcia oeuvre -- do fine work for him again, along with Marc Blucas, S. Epatha Merkerson and Cherry Jones, to name but a few in the large, first-rate cast.  I should think there are very few really good actors who would not jump at the chance to work under this exceptional filmmaker, whose special ability is to bring out the best in everything to
which he connects. 

The subject of adoption and the need for the birth mother/child reunion has been done to death, so it is even more surprising how moving and important Garcia makes it.  (The film this most reminded me of is the under-seen but very sad and dear Loggerheads.)  How nice that the deep feelings that keep welling up in you come from the characters on view rather than from any melodrama. Given the situations here, melodrama would be easy, but the filmmaker manages to avoid it. This is the secret of Garcia's success. He hardly needs a "plot."  Instead, his full, rich characters -- fired by specific, meaningful dialog -- simply take over the film and run with it.  (The writer/director also handily incorporates the way we live now -- class, immigration and so forth -- into his scenario.)

Mother and Child, from Sony Pictures Classics, opens this Friday, May 7 in New York and Los Angeles. A nationwide limited rollout will follow. To call this the perfect Mother's Day movie (which it is) still sells it short.  It's the perfect Father's Day film, too.  If dad could
but rise to the occasion that Garcia presents, he'd learn a whole
lot more about mom.

2 comments:

Rodrigo Silveira said...

I am still waiting to see a bad movie with samuel l jackson in it...

James van Maanen, said...

You know, Rodrigo-- you may have a point there. I hadn't thought of that previously, but now that you mention it, I can't think of a bad Jackson movie right off the top of my head, either -- including the much maligned Snakes on a Plane and the recent terror/torture fest Unthinkable (check that one out, if you have not already).