Mother and Child

mother and child written and directed by rodrigo garcia

When Rodrigo Garcia, the writer and director of Mother and Child, was asked during a Q and A at the Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute how he went about directing actors, he replied, “Well, the script, whether you wrote it or not, that is the big piece of direction. . . . So if you wrote it and they agree with it . . . if you see eye-to-eye, if you have your contract with an actor, then I’m scared to direct any more than that, because then I’m in their head.”

This notion of the writer as director, and the screenplay as a contract, is fairly unusual in the movie business—especially on big studio films, where writers revise scripts on the set to please anyone from the director to the producer to the stars. But Garcia’s attitude makes particular sense when you consider his background: his father is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Nobel Prize-winning author of Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude. It also may explain a great deal about his three feature films, Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her (2000), Nine Lives (2005) and now Mother and Child. They’re writerly in the best sense of the word: they focus on characters, and the story springs from who these people are rather than putting them through their paces. When Garcia’s films succeed they do so on the strength of his writing, and when they fail their shortcomings can usually be traced back to the writing as well.

His best film to date is Nine Lives, a series of intertwined vignettes that reveal the pain of nine different women. Each segment unfolds in real time and was shot in a single take lasting nine or ten minutes, making the film a real showcase for the actors. (Garcia, who got his start as a cinematographer, had his hands full just choreographing the camerawork.) Robin Wright Penn is a pregnant woman whose life is turned upside down when she runs into an old lover at the supermarket; Lisa Gay Hamilton is an adult survivor of sexual abuse who returns to her father’s home armed with a pistol; Amy Brenneman shows up with her parents at the funeral of her ex-husband’s second wife and winds up having a quickie with her ex in a private room. The format of linked stories has become an indie cliche in the years since Pulp Fiction, but Garcia’s vignettes manage to achieve the resonance of a literary short story, using tightly isolated moments to lay bare the truth of a person’s life.

Unfortunately, Garcia’s movies can also be writerly in the worst sense of the word, exposing not the characters but the writer. Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her suffers most from this sort of clumsiness; it too weaves together stories of several women but without the later film’s narrative rigor. Sometimes when Garcia needs to fill in a character he’ll channel pages of omniscient narration through some faux-mystical figure: an unhappy doctor (Glenn Close) gets a tarot reading so emotionally precise it might have been dictated by her psychotherapist, and a no-nonsense bank officer (Holly Hunter) strikes up a glancing acquaintance with a hoary old bag lady who subjects her to a series of preternaturally exact character analyses. Garcia also has a penchant for disabled characters (in Nine Lives, a deaf-mute man; in Things You Can Tell, a dwarf and a blind woman), and more often than not their disability is tossed lazily into the mix as a bit of exotica.

Mother and Child follows the same formula that has served Garcia so well in the past—the main characters are all women, and their separate stories are intertwined as the film progresses—but here he’s made an effort to refine and strengthen it. In Nine Lives and Things You Can Tell, the stories were more numerous and distinct, set off by titles and linked mostly by the device of having the main character from one turn up as a supporting character in another. Here Garcia confines himself to just three stories, and though a Catholic adoption agency figures prominently in all of them, they’re linked by fate rather than coincidence. Karen (Annette Bening), a deeply unhappy 51-year-old woman who lives with her mother, longs to make contact with the daughter she gave up for adoption 37 years earlier; Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), the daughter in question, has become an icily self-sufficient attorney with a taste for illicit sexual encounters; and Lucy (Kerry Washington) is a barren young woman whose desperate need to adopt a child is pushing her husband away.

Garcia has never had any trouble getting good performances out of his actors, but the clear standout here is Bening, whose character has been twisted into a pretzel by her overprotective mother. After waking from a bad dreamKaren crawls into bed with the old woman. She’s never recovered from having given away her infant; she dreams of the child and addresses a diary to her. (“I know in my heart that we will meet one day and you will forgive me.”) When a colleague at work (Jimmy Smits) takes an interest in Karen, she puts him off with her prickly behavior. “I’m not a difficult person,” she tells him during a coffee date, before finding some reason to leave in a huff. Karen is an unflattering role—brittle, angry, and emphatically middle-aged—but Bening never shies from either Karen’s unhappiness or her talent for spreading it around.

Whether the actor is a star like Bening or just a day player in TV, Garcia understands that the best thing a director can do is get out of the way. In his discussion at the Strasberg Institute (which is included on the Nine Lives DVD), Garcia explained that by the time he begins shooting a film his actors have prepared their roles so intensively they know the characters better than he does. Just as the writer is allowed to do some of the work of the director, the actor is allowed to do some of the work of the writer. There’s something inherently literary in this idea. Good fiction writers know when to step back and let the reader do the work; the process of making one’s own connections, of participating in the meaning, is a chief pleasure of art. Bad writing often consists of rubbing the reader’s nose in something he can figure out for himself.

There’s some of that in Mother and Child. When Elizabeth is asked by her new boss to tell him about herself, she obliges with a penetrating self-portrait that no skilled professional would ever paint for her employer. (“Many women find me threatening.”) It’s more subtle than having a bag lady profile her, but not much. Later in the film, after Karen has married, there’s a scene at a family picnic in which her evangelizing new stepdaughter rudely brings up Karen’s long-lost child to score some religious points (“Sometimes it’s hard to see God’s design”) and conveniently hit a key thematic note (“Regret is a killer”). Garcia manages to combine his two biggest narrative indulgences in the character of Violet, a blind high school girl who befriends Elizabeth and serves no function in the story except to blurt out personal observations that highlight Elizabeth’s secret thoughts. These false moments keep deflating the actors’ best efforts and make you wish that, like God’s design, the writer’s were a little harder to see.