Whatever combination of dramatic machination and emotional truth is at work when the tear-jerk mechanism is satisfyingly triggered, writer-director Rodrigo Garcia supplies it amply and effectively in his adoption melodrama, “Mother and Child.” Rich undercurrents enable this movie to survive its contrived surfaces and thematic problems.
Garcia, whose credits include “Nine Lives,” specializes in multiple-story stitching featuring female protagonists and, this time, he limits the plot threads to three and keeps the material tightly topic-specific.
The setting is Los Angeles, the psychically ailing sprawl where, in films like “Magnolia” and Garcia’s own tapestries, lost souls tend to connect in the haze. The drama takes the form of a canvas of mother-daughter traumas and reverberations.
Karen (Annette Bening), a 51-year-old never-married physical therapist, had a baby girl at age 14 and remains tormented about having given her up for adoption. Obsessed with the child she’s never known, Karen treats the people closest to her, including kindly colleague and eventual love interest Paco (Jimmy Smits), horridly. Reminded of her own child, she resents the presence of her housekeeper’s young daughter.
Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), Karen’s now-grown daughter, is a 37-year-old driven attorney plagued by her belief that her birth mother didn’t want her. Keeping her relationships loveless and insisting on maintaining absolute control, she seduces both her widowed boss (a very good Samuel L. Jackson) and a neighbor (Marc Blucas) with a bubbly pregnant wife (Carla Gallo) whose marriage she seems to enjoy destroying. One of these affairs leaves her with a pregnancy dilemma of her own.
Lucy (Kerry Washington), a married baker unable to conceive, hopes to adopt the baby of Ray (Shareeka Epps), a pregnant 20-year-old who brutally grills prospective parents at the adoption agency. When the plan hits a snag, Lucy falls apart.
As the stories intersect, Garcia delivers contrivances, coincidences, a melodramatically tragic turn and some too-sunny closure — falseness that nearly dooms the film.
Lucy’s story, meanwhile, along with Washington, receives short shrift.
Also problematic, considerably so, is how Garcia, through these and other scenarios, appears to be presenting motherhood as the only significant determinant of what constitutes wholeness and happiness for women.
Yet, as Karen’s and Elizabeth’s stories unfold and Garcia’s camera soaks up the emotional current provided by his stars, something undeniably real and moving transpires.
Watts’ Elizabeth is a convincing and compelling portrait of harshness masking hurt. Bening’s gradation-rich, exquisitely open performance makes Karen heartbreaking in her sadness.
The sum total is a beautifully acted soap opera that contains enough gravity to feel serious and enough wallop to enable a solid cry — an agreeable deal before the summer silliness begins.
Starring Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, Kerry Washington, Jimmy Smits, Samuel L. Jackson
Written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia
Running time 2 hours 6 minutes