In the beautifully acted ensemble Mother and Child, Annette Bening and Naomi Watts play a mother and daughter separated at birth. Karen (Bening) was 14 when she had Elizabeth (Watts) and gave her up for adoption. Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia (Nine Lives) doesn't explicitly spell out the connection, but you hardly need a blood test to see that these two women are related.
They are prickly, oddly cold and highly intelligent, and they take a fierce pride in their work. Karen, now 51, still lives with her ailing mother Nora (Eileen Ryan) and works at a rehabilitation facility in Los Angeles. We meet Elizabeth as she's interviewing for a job at a downtown law firm. Her prospective boss Paul (Samuel L. Jackson, in an unusually tender performance) tells her she's an exceptional candidate but asks to know a bit more about her background. Crisply and with little emotion, she tells him about being given up for adoption and making her way in the world with little help from anyone, including her adoptive parents.
"I value my independence above all things," Elizabeth says. In cadence, body language and expression of emotion, Watts and Bening are dead ringers, and you get a little thrill thinking about the way these two great actresses must have studied each other to pull off the feat of seeming related (they're almost reasonable as mother and daughter 14 years apart; Watts is 10 years younger than Bening). Both are fantastic, but Bening in particular gives the kind of performance that leaves you mopping up tears.
The movie unfolds with novelistic pacing for a leisurely but engaging two hours, with Elizabeth and Karen living in the same city but tantalizingly apart. They both embark on love affairs, although with little apparent expectation or desire to make a real connection ("you should watch your weight," Karen tells potential love interest Paco, played by Jimmy Smits, when he orders pie on their first date). The bitter-cynicism gene runs deep in this family. "Life is just one disappointment after another," Karen's mother sighs. These are not nice women, but we are so aware of their psychic bruising that we cut them the necessary slack. It also helps that they are wickedly entertaining; Elizabeth deliberately takes her panties off and deposits them in the dresser drawer of the pregnant wife of a man she's about to sleep with.
There's a third principal female character, Lucy (Kerry Washington, an actress who has yet to get the attention she deserves), an infertile bakery owner who longs to be a mother. Her contemporary adoption saga provides a counterpoint to that of Karen and Elizabeth; when a tough, pregnant student (Tatyana Ali) considers allowing Lucy and her husband to adopt her baby, we're rooting for Lucy to get the baby but also for the young mother, who seems too vested in her baby's destination to let go. The wonderful Cherry Jones plays the nun who oversees Lucy's adoption efforts. It takes a long time for Garcia, who established his interest in women's lives with 2000's Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, to connect the ensemble, but when he does, it's both devastating and hopeful.
It's also a little too neat. All entertainments are to some extent manipulative of their audiences' emotions, but when movies get that label, it usually means we feel cheated or pushed into a reaction that the filmmaker didn't work all that hard to earn. (Given the difference between canine and human lifespans, it is inevitable that the dog in Marley & Me will die at the end. If you knowingly went to see a dog movie not based on a Stephen King novel, you shouldn't whine about being manipulated into crying.)
I don't resent Garcia because I was still sniveling under my sunglasses 15 minutes after Mother and Child was over. I'm grateful to him for the cinematic reminder of how lucky we are to have mothers or children (this movie isn't as easy a Mother's Day date as Babies, but it's more worthwhile). However, at a crucial moment near the end, Garcia has to manipulate one of his characters dreadfully in order to get all of us actors, characters, viewers where he wants us. He has to push someone into an illogical decision that a person would be highly unlikely to make or even be allowed to make, medically speaking. It's a credit to Garcia and his actors' impeccable performances that you go along with it even for a minute. Afterward, though, it eats away just a little at your faith in the movie and at that good cry.