In his work as writer-director, Rodrigo García has admirably distinguished himself through his commitment to creating intelligent, complex roles for his heavily distaff casts. Like his debut, Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her (2000), and Nine Lives (2005), Mother and Child is a compassionate, multi-threaded tale about the lives of everyday women — though this time, they are more explicitly defined by the primal bond of the title. Driven, as his earlier work was, by the strength of the performances from both the leads and the minor characters, García's latest takes potentially banal subjects — what defines "family," biological parents versus those who adopt — and transforms them into something powerful. The force of the acting alone almost compensates for some of the more difficult (and realistic) questions about not giving birth that García willfully sidesteps.
Paring down the number of interlinked protagonists from his earlier movies, the director focuses on three women: defensive physical therapist Karen (Annette Bening), who lives with her ailing mother and writes letters to the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was 14, in 1973; steely attorney Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), adopted at birth and proudly free of emotional attachments to anyone; and high-strung bakery owner Lucy (Kerry Washington), who, unable to conceive, begins the process of adoption with her husband.
Connections snap into place: We quickly surmise that Elizabeth is the child Karen gave up. But though Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, 21 Grams) is the executive producer, García's film shows no trace of that director's overburdened, highly contrived linkages. As each woman's story braids into the others', García (the son of Gabriel García Márquez), gives each main actress ample time and space to burrow deep into her character, showcasing talents often underused by other directors. Bening does some of the best acting of her career here (and in the upcoming The Kids Are All Right). Dutifully caring for a still-disapproving parent who shows more kindness to the cleaning woman than she does to her own daughter, Karen may be weighed down by regret and anger that her life was derailed when she was barely an adolescent, but Bening never plays her as a calcified construction. More than a middle-aged depressive, she's a woman who takes tremendous pride in her work and who will eventually let down her defenses with a colleague, Paco (Jimmy Smits), who's kind to her. "You took me by surprise with your attention," Karen tells him — a line that Bening delivers with incredulity perfectly calibrated with a small amount of hope.
Where Bening's character thaws, Watts's Elizabeth grows harder, even as her appetite for destruction mellows into a form of self-preservation. Though far more polished, Elizabeth shares some of the searing, feral intensity of Watts's Mulholland Drive character Diane Selwyn, particularly during a sex scene when she tops senior partner Paul (Samuel L. Jackson, also thrilling to watch in a rare subdued role). Watts is saddled with some of the most awkward dialogue in García's otherwise rich script — "There's more than one way to skin a cat," she tells Paul during some pillow talk about the best way to become a circuit judge — but makes even clichéd speech sound fresh.
Balancing a neurotic desire to please with an unwavering commitment to get what she wants, Washington hasn't had a part this thoughtfully drawn since her breakthrough role in Our Song a decade ago. Her adoptive mother-to-be becomes even more nuanced in the scenes she shares with the outstanding S. Epatha Merkerson (as Lucy's mother) and Cherry Jones (as a nun who oversees a private Catholic adoption agency).
In a film with several welcome, graceful touches — in addition to so many remarkable performances, Mother and Child stands out for its colorblind casting and the casualness of its interracial relationships — García's strenuous avoidance of another reproductive choice disappoints all the more. Though Karen gives birth to Elizabeth in 1973 — the year Roe v. Wade was decided — none of the pregnant women, regardless of age or financial security, discuss abortion (one lead character's gynecologist does, sending her into a white-hot rage). The sanctity of the titular connection is real, as are the characters García creates. But in not addressing an option that these women surely must have grappled with, García's laudable film stops short of being great.