They are talented and respected actresses. They are famous. They draw much praise. So is it still possible for them to be overlooked?
In this way, Annette Bening and Naomi Watts are similar actresses from slightly different generations. Each could make an argument for being best among their age, yet each one is usuually overshadowed – Bening by the long legacy of Meryl Streep; Watts by overseas double threat o Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet. Mother and Child is then, an inviting showcase for these two prodigious talents. The new film from Rodrigo Garcia (Nine Lives) embroils them both in a tale of distant teenage adoption that severely wounds all parties.
Bening plays a once-14-year-old mother now creeping into a lonely middle age. She is an unusually prickly personality, alone with only an aging mother on whom to lavish her care. At moments (such as breaking up a coffee break with a co-worker) her blunt, unaware manner becomes darkly funny. But as a new man arrives in her life, she finally, slowly comes to terms with the loss that has haunted her for so long.
Watts really shines here as the 37-year-old version of the abandoned daughter who grows up to become a gifted but itinerant lawyer who instinctively avoids other human beings. Her main contact with other people comes in her own form of seduction and manipulation. The coldness of her character is so profound that when she uses the figurative expression “There are many ways to skin a cat,” you wonder how many times she has literally tried.
Yet through her iciness, Watts magnetically and magically brings forth both distress and sympathy. This is categorically her best performance since those breakhrough performances (Mulholland Dr., 21 Grams) which first vaulted her into the Hollywood spotlight.
The story, shaped in the well-established three-story format of producer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, also offers Kerry Washington as a third mother seeking to be matched with a child for adoption. She’s paired with a teen mother-to-be (Shareeka Epps) who is picky and brutally honest toward all potential adopted mothers. While Washington holds her own, the greatest testament to the power of Bening and Watts in Mother and Child is that this third storyline, which could serve as the backbone of a perfectly servciable film, comes across as here as unnecessary and at times, even distracting to the main dynamic.
In Nine Lives, Garcia used long takes to study the effect of stresses on women under pressure. Here he continues that desire, examining the effects of the pull of motherhood from all angles, as well as showing how the effects of its absence eventually becomes a wounding experience for these women. Then, as the story goes on and as love and motherhood re-enter their lives, they becomes the only tonic that can heal those wounds. While the film cheats a little as it gets toa point of closure through some contrivances and coincidences, they are well-crafted enough to seem necessary and hard-won enough to have been earned by both by the care of the director and the talent of the cast.
'Mother and Child' is in theaters now from Sony Pictures Classics.