The first half of Mother and Child, a drama about adopted children and the mothers who gave them up as infants, has a steely, engaging fire - the flames of anger and life-long disappointment. Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia (Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her) uses quick, deft strokes to establish the emotional constitution of his three main characters. Karen (Annette Bening) is a brittle, acerbic woman who lives with her ailing mother (Eileen Ryan), who clucks her disapproval constantly and prefers the company of their housekeeper (Elpidia Carrillo).
Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) is a supremely confident lawyer who impresses her new boss (Samuel L. Jackson) so much, they're soon embroiled in a sexual affair. Elizabeth has no trouble separating her personal life from her work: She separates herself from the world entirely, her calculating, sometimes condescending manner hinting at a great, unspoken resentment that will never be satisfied.
Lucy (Kerry Washington) cannot bear children, but she is eager to adopt with her husband, and they meet a potential donor in pregnant Ray (Shareeka Epps), who demands to interview her baby's would-be parents before consenting to the adoption. To say that the interview process is grueling does not properly describe it.
Mother and Child is at its best when Garcia observes cruelty and kindness with the same detached, impassioned eye: These characters are all wounded in one way or another and are wont to commit small acts of emotional brutality as a way of giving their inner pain some escape. The movie might have been a bruising little masterpiece if Garcia had maintained that tone all the way through, but he lets the picture start to go soft in the middle, and teary melodrama floods in like water from a broken dam.
Suddenly, we've got scenes involving necklaces with sentimental value, a little blind girl who is wise beyond her years and an unexpected pregnancy that goes wrong in all the worst ways. The none-too-subtle mystery running throughout Mother and Child is the connection among the protagonists. The link betwen Karen and Elizabeth is obvious from the get-go, but Lucy's role in the puzzle isn't made clear until the closing scene, which is easily the film's worst.
Mother and Child is good when it takes a harsh, unsparing look at lament and the burdens we carry throughout our lives. Then it goes for your tear ducts,and we're suddenly stranded in Lifetime TV territory - as if another filmmaker had taken over and decided to soften the hard edges that previously made Mother and Child so compelling.
Mother and Child (** out of ****) opens at the Regal South Beach in Miami-Dade and Sunrise and Gateway in Fort Lauderdale on Friday June 4.