I hadn’t heard about the film Mother and Child when I went to see it. It was the title that caught my eye. What kind of mother? I wondered. What kind of child? It turned out to have lots of mothers and children: birth mothers, adoptive mothers, adoptees, mothers to be. It had a lot of sex, too, as if to say this is how babies are created. And so I found that I had wandered into an unusual adoption film, earthy and insightful, almost like a reality show, as it followed everyone’s lives. Its masterful acting added to its professional sheen.
The birth mother, Karen (Anette Bening), relinquished her baby thirty seven years ago when she was fourteen. She is still mourning her loss and caring for her ailing mother, who had been instrumental in her giving up her baby.
The adoptee, Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) a beautiful young blond, who was that baby, is now a corporate lawyer. She will leave a letter for Karen at the Catholic orphanage that arranged her adoption, but it is not matched with the letter that Karen has left for her. In fact, Elizabeth’s letter will not get to Karen until a year later when Elizabeth has died in childbirth.
The adoptive mother, Lucy (Kerry Washington), is an infertile African American woman so eager to adopt a baby that she leaves her husband who wants, in his words, to have a child of his own. Lucy works with her mother, who warns her to be careful when she is chosen by Ray, a pugnacious pregnant teenager, who has already rejected a few other couples. The director inserts some wicked humor here as he shows Lucy being intimidated by Ray’s challenging questions.
Ray is no Juno. In fact, with her own mother’s prodding, she will change her mind about giving up her baby. This will cause Lucy to have a hysterical fit at the hospital when she arrives to pick up the baby, and learns that the baby will not be hers. .
If all of this sounds like a sentimental hodgepodge, at times it is. But the director, Rodrigo Garcia, who happens to be the son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is known for his sympathetic portrayals of women. Garcia was quoted as saying he wanted to make a film about people haunted by the absence of a loved one and decided that adoption yielded the richest dramatic possibilities for exploring loss. We learn about birth mother grief from Karen; the adoptee’s longing for her lost mother from Elizabeth; and the obsessive need for a baby from Lucy. Garcia’s camera is always with them: in bed trying to have a baby, or, as with Elizabeth, having an affair with Paul, the African American founder of his law firm, and it stays with her as she dies giving birth to his baby.
We even learn about the unfinished business between mothers and daughters. After giving up her baby, Karen has become the obedient, if bitter, daughter, caring for her mother in her old age. This was something my mother did, still taking orders from her mother, who was instrumental in giving me up, and later breaking up her two marriages. It seems that birth mothers can both resent their mother and yet need to please her, as if to absolve themselves from their mortal sin.
Perhaps Elizabeth, the adoptee, is the most enigmatic of the women. We are told nothing about her adoptive life – except her father died when she was ten and she is not close to her mother. She appears full grown as an accomplished corporate lawyer. But what is the director saying about adoptees when Elizabeth seduces her boss, and even the next door neighbor, whose wife is pregnant. Are adoptees to be seen as bright, but making up for their losses by acting out sexually? And does the loss they have experienced make them unable to have intimate attachments to others?
The plot eventually comes together in both ingenious and manipulated ways. But Garcia has managed to capture the essential feelings of everyone involved in the adoption triad, something no other film that I’ve seen has done. It’s like a sleight of hand, transmuting each of the women’s struggles into art.
Still I think this may be a difficult movie for birth mothers to see even though the director has revealed their pain with compassion and understanding. As an adoptee, I felt distanced from Elizabeth, whose underdeveloped part made her seem cold and remote. But my eyes were tearing when Karen was searching for traces of Elizabeth’s life And more tears when Karen is able to visit her little granddaughter, now a year old toddler, who has been adopted by Lucy.
I wondered if it might not be difficult for some adoptive mothers, too, because of the importance that blood connectedness is given. I came across one adoptive mother’s post on Salon that the film “insults parents like me” She felt the adoptive mom is “irrelevant, an interloper in the primal story of the genetic mother-child bond.” But I think adoptive moms are well represented by Lucy, and will understand her near breakdown when Ray decided to keep her baby. And they will feel validated when the same agency arranges for Lucy to mother Elizabeth’s now motherless baby.
Without possibly intending to, Mother and Child, reveals the interconnectedness of everyone in the adoption triad. Those of us who are adopted will notice this, as will birth mothers and adoptive mothers. And perhaps those not involved in the triad will also.