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On Movies: Strong acting ties 'Mother and Child' together

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 3, 2010 - "Mother and Child" is the touching, well-acted story of three women who do not know one another, but who have something very important in common.

Karen (Annette Bening), works as a physical therapist in a rehabilitation clinic. A suspicious, angry woman who rebuffs people who try to befriend her, she can never forget that she was forced to give up for adoption a baby she had when she was 14 years old. She often wonders what happened to the little girl she gave birth to, and she writes sad letters to her, letters that she will never mail. With her own mother approaching death, she decides to try to find her daughter.

Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), is a tough, ambitious lawyer who grew up as an adopted child. She never knew her birth mother, and when she thinks about her, she does so with bitterness. Her single-minded self absorption sometimes seems to translate into a facility for malice - you wouldn't want to face her across a courtroom. She is proud of not needing other people, but when she becomes pregnant by her much older boss (Samuel Jackson), she decides she needs to know something about her biological mother.

Lucy (Kerry Washington), is heartbroken when she discovers that she and her husband cannot conceive. She begins looking for a child to adopt. Her husband does not like the idea of adoption, but Lucy persists.

Given those three main characters, all sharing a deeply emotional connection to adoption, it would be hard for a filmmaker to completely avoid melodrama. And writer-director Rodrigo Garcia, who grew up in Mexico (he is the son of writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez), doesn't back away from giving us at least a taste of telenovela, the lushly emotional Mexican form of soap opera. But he and a talented cast create such a rich and contrary mix of characters in the process of telling a complex story - a story about people in need finding one another -- that we are willing to grant him a few excesses on the side of sentimentality.

Annette Bening, in particular, gives a strong performance as a woman almost torn apart by self-hatred. Hers is a better and more controlled performance than the one in "American Beauty" for which she received an Oscar nomination. And Naomi Watts, who really was pregnant for much of the filming, gives fierce believability to a character whose self-absorption threatens to destroy any chance she has at happiness.

The stories work themselves out over a period of a year. Central to the process is an adoption agency headed by a nun -- Cherry Jones, in a highly sympathetic portrayal of a woman bringing kindness and efficiency to a difficult job. She adds to the emotional power of the movie. In the end, the richly peopled "Mother and Child" comes together in a dramatically satisfying way, although not necessarily to the benefit of all the characters. The film may be, in part, soap opera, but it's good soap opera.

Opens Friday, June 4

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.

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