Mother and Child packs an emotional wallop that will give you goosebumps and keep you fighting back tears. Unlike many indie filmmakers, Rodrigo Garcia is unafraid to roll out gut-wrenching situations from a telenovela, though his inner gyroscope keeps him from going over the top. His raw emotionality makes Garcia a cross-over director straddling art film and commercial cinema.
As in his earlier Nine Lives, Garcia again brings uncanny insight to group portraits of women. Mother and Child focuses on the primal bond of the title through the interlocking stories of Karen (Annette Bening) an unfulfilled 50-year-old obsessed with the baby she was forced at fourteen to give up for adoption; Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), a steely careerist, herself an adoptive child, who keeps the world at arm's length; and Lucy (Kerry Washington) a high-strung perfectionist unable to become pregnant, embarking with her husband on the thorny process of adoption.
It soon becomes clear that Elizabeth, a porcelain beauty, is Karen's daughter. That a mother and child reunion is thwarted lends the film a pervasive sadness. Elizabeth becomes involved with the boss of her law firm (Samuel Jackson, excellent as an upscale achiever); in a memorable sexual encounter Watts manages to convey a mix of arousal, desire to control, and fear of intimacy. Laying out his plot in a series of quick scenes, Garcia eventually connects the other two women with Lucy's search for a child in a satisfying two-hankie coda.
To round out this female-centric film Garcia (son of Gabriel Garcia Marquez) has created a couple of empathic, supportive men who, in a sense, usurp the cinematic role usually assigned to women. The three actresses delve deep into their characters, but the standout is Watts, who plays the damaged, self-destructive daughter with feral intensity. With its black, white, and Latino cast, the film also depicts a color blind society, pointedly omitting any issues of race.
Recently I discussed with Garcia such issues as his empathy for women, the topic of race in film, and shooting a sex scene with Naomi Watts and Samuel Jackson.
Erica Abeel: My apologies, because you must be bored with this question -- but what does your interest in women stem from?
Rodrigo Garcia: I like women, what can I say. I've always been fascinated by feminine things and the gregarious nature of women and how they relate to work and love and how they're the glue in the family. I'll see the face of a waitress, or some older woman in the market, or a girl walking to school -- that stimulates my imagination. It's a point of departure for me. Ultimately I don't know what women are like because I'm not one. I have a strong sense for the way I imagine it, let's put it that way.
EA: What was the original inspiration for the movie?
RG: It wasn't adoption as a subject, but the idea of people who live haunted by the absence of a loved one -- through death, distance, prison, exile, divorce. This idea of pining for someone. I took it to its more primary level: a mother separated from her baby at birth. I made Karen fourteen, then picked up thirty-six years later to see where the women are now. I thought it monotonous just bouncing between the two of them, so I picked up a third story line of Lucy about a woman who was looking to adopt a child.
EA: It's unusual for a male filmmaker to create such a richly detailed portrait of women's lives. How do you manage it?
RG: I'm not taking it on as this big challenge. It's what I feel I can do. I'm more challenged by taking on male characters. A guy is too close to me, too similar. The men I've written have gotten better and I"m happier with them. But when you start as a writer you develop your strongest tool and mine was writing women.
EA: Where did the stories in the film come from? Did you do a lot of research?
RG: I read accounts and memoirs; interviewed women who had relinquished babies against their will in a period when adoptions were closed -- the particular circumstances of Karen. It was all surrounded by secrecy and shame and the records were not accessible.
EA: With your emphasis on maternity and family, would you say there is something specifically Latin about your work?
RG: It is Latin in the sense that having come from Latin America,. I developed a sense of what seemed to be these lonely lives in big American cities. The first time you come to L.A. it always promises so much -- the weather is generous, next to the ocean, spacious, rich. But when you spend time there, like in any big city people can lead lonely, isolated lives. L.A. is so spread out and there's no sidewalk culture, you're always alone in the car. The image of the San Fernando valley where you could really get lost and lonely sparked a lot of the stories that I wrote about.
EA: I guess I was thinking more of the strong familial ties in Latin culture.
RG: Those ties exist. In L.A. where there are so many Latinos, it's more unusual to see homeless Latino people. They're taken in, live seven in a room. They're tied at the hip because they're family, whether you like it or not. That's a Latino sensibility.
EA: What attracts you about the multi-story structure? Isn't it more dramatic to have one character the viewer stays with?
RG: In "Mother" I thought of it as one story with three strands. They all come together in Lucy's front yard at the end. The central story is how three women who have been traumatized by something that is out of their control come to accept that some things are always going to be out of our control. And that still, life can be lived. The film is about releasing control.
EA: I was struck by the color blindness of the film. It's never an issue or discussed.
RG: That's because it's not integral to the drama. And yet once you have characters of a different race, that is something that impacts the story. Race is another characteristic of character and it plays into the story. But I didn't want to bring it to the foreground. Someone asked: is the movie post-racial? I'd say it's post-racist. It shouldn't be post-racial. Race is part of who we are.
EA: How did you shoot that amazing sex scene with Naomi Watts and Samuel Jackson?
RG: It was the end of one day and we had very little time and they just did it. The stuff was written. In sex scenes, like action scenes, you want the beats to be very specific, otherwise it's just humping and it doesn't mean anything. I wanted the scene to be about her desire to control and his desire to play along. I wanted the personal dynamics to come through.
EA: Your characters really put it out there. How do you write such honest scenes?
RG: I hate lukewarm dialog. I like dialog where there's punchiness or directness, where characters challenge each other or they're lying. Though sometimes I'm looking for a way not to say anything at all -- like it's never said in the script that Elizabeth was angry because she could never accept that she was put up for adoption. Woody Allen's movies -- they'll talk for five or six pages. It's beautiful. I don't dare.
EA: How has growing up the son of a world-renowned writer influenced you?
RG: I've been influenced by growing up in a world of storytelling and literature. My father is a big fan of my movies and shows them off shamelessly. Luckily for me, our worlds don't really overlap. He has the world of someone who grew up in Colombia in the 20s; I'm a bourgeois boy from Mexico City.
EA: What was the deal with that shot of Naomi Watts's belly?
RG: She was pregnant and we did that shot of her belly before we did the movie. Then she came back to the set five weeks after she had the baby.
THE spot for your favorite fan theories and the best Netflix recs. Learn more