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Movie Review

Mother and Child

Bening, Watts carry ‘Mother and Child’

The film’s story lines involve Naomi Watts (pictured) and Annette Bening as a daughter and mother separated by adoption and Shareeka Epps, David Ramsey, and Kerry Washington as a pregnant teen and a couple hoping to adopt. The film’s story lines involve Naomi Watts (pictured) and Annette Bening as a daughter and mother separated by adoption and Shareeka Epps, David Ramsey, and Kerry Washington as a pregnant teen and a couple hoping to adopt. (Ralph Nelson/Sony Pictures Classics)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / May 14, 2010

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I think a congressional oversight committee should be formed to investigate why Annette Bening isn’t in more movies. I know, she’s been off being Mrs. Warren Beatty for a couple of decades and having perfectly formed children with him, but they’re getting up in years, and talent like hers — the ability to play problematic women with clarity and truth — shouldn’t go to waste.

In a few months you’ll be able to see Bening reclaim her crown in the serenely comic Sundance hit “The Kids Are All Right,’’ in which she plays the power half of a trendy LA lesbian couple (Julianne Moore’s the crunchy half; their grown kids want to locate their sperm-donor daddy, which sets the two moms off in a dither). For now Bening simply rescues “Mother and Child’’ from itself, or comes close enough.

The film is the latest from writer-director Rodrigo Garcia, who loves to build concatenated multi-character tales of women under stress. “Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her’’ (2000), “Ten Tiny Love Stories’’ (2001) and “Nine Lives’’ (2005) are all intelligent meta-soaps, with richly written female characters that draw actresses like sharks to a chum bucket. Garcia is also the son of the legendary novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and while his movies couldn’t by any stretch be labeled magic realism, they are eerily attuned to their characters’ secret emotional landscapes. At their best, they glow.

“Mother and Child’’ glows for a good 90 minutes before an increasing reliance on contrivance and coincidence makes the lamp flicker and then fizzle out. Bening plays Karen, a Los Angeles hydrotherapist for the aged who lives with her elderly mother (Eileen Ryan) and who has never gotten over the infant daughter she gave up for adoption when she was 14. In thrall to a girl she has never seen, Karen writes long, agonized letters she doesn’t mail and bites the head off of anyone who gets too close (including Jimmy Smits as a gentle hunk of a co-worker).

In a parallel story line, Naomi Watts plays that grown daughter, Elizabeth — the script never spells out the relationship and doesn’t have to — who has bottled her rage into the exquisitely pressed lines of a corporate lawyer’s power suit. When we meet her, she’s being interviewed by Paul (Samuel L. Jackson), a name partner at a downtown firm, and like him we’re taken aback at her drive and self-possession. Elizabeth has a new name, no friends, and barely a past: She’s an ambitiously willed self-invention who owes nothing to anyone. Paul is smitten; we’re slightly terrified.

This being a Rodrigo Garcia movie, there’s yet a third plot strand, this one involving a young couple named Lucy (Kerry Washington) and Joseph (David Ramsey) seeking to adopt from the same organization Elizabeth passed through (and run by the same nun: Cherry Jones). A pregnant teenage girl named Ray (Shareeka Epps, the high schooler in “Half Nelson’’) might provide them with the child they crave if they can meet her high qualifications. She’s a tougher interviewer than Paul.

And this being a Garcia movie, there are fine actors turning up in all sorts of places: S. Epatha Merkerson as Lucy’s meddlesome mother; David Morse as the grown, settled father of Karen’s baby; Elpidia Carillo as Karen’s mother’s caregiver and housecleaner, connecting with the old lady on an emotional level that drives the daughter crazy with jealousy. “Mother and Child’’ keeps the traffic moving smoothly, much more so than a movie like “Crash,’’ because Garcia writes characters rather than positions, and he knows that the silences between people usually speak louder than their words.

Eventually, though, there comes a plot turn that feels calculated; and then another, and another, and after that there’s an event that seems downright unfair until you realize it has been specifically written to allow the final run of coincidences to snap neatly into place. By then the movie is breaking out the wise blind teenagers (Britt Robertson) and turning Jones into a dea ex machina in a wimple.

Watts is quite good in an impossible role — she gets Elizabeth’s hermetically sealed reserve but not enough of the anger beneath — and Ryan effortlessly conveys the bitterness that can get passed down from one generation of women to the next. (Nature? Nurture, or lack thereof? It’s immaterial.) That sense of grievances unresolved roosts most mesmerizingly in Bening’s Karen, a prickly spinster on the verge of becoming a mean old lady until she stops to tend to the teenager she carries around inside her. “I’m not a weirdo, but I’m difficult,’’ she admits to Smits’s character, and she’s right. It’s the movie that’s a little too easy.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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MOTHER AND CHILD

Written and directed by: Rodrigo Garcia

Starring: Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, Kerry Washington, Eileen Ryan, Jimmy Smits, Samuel L. Jackson, Shareeka Epps, Cherry Jones

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 125 minutes

Rated: R (sexuality, brief nudity, language)

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