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Despite great acting, Mother and Child sinks into banality
Adoptions gone wrong
Some of Bening's best work.
Some of Bening's best work.

If the mother-child bond is the core human relationship, then this movie implies that we are an emotionally doomed species, though I do not think this was writer-director Rodrigo Garcia's intent.

Adoption, particularly, is fraught with psychic dangers, and that's the revelation of each of the three individual storylines in Mother and Child. The characters from each never physically connect with one another, even though the viewers have privileged inklings of the links among them.

Garcia's seriously contrived third-act melodramatics bring some sense of unity to the various narrative arcs. But they also turn what had previously been thorny characterizations into banal stereotypes.

If powerhouse performances are what you're looking for, though, search no further than this movie. In the lead roles, Naomi Watts, Annette Bening and Kerry Washington deliver some of the best work of their careers, as do Samuel L. Jackson and Jimmy Smits as a couple of the men who love them. The supporting roles, too, are filled with stunners, especially Shareeka Epps (Half Nelson) as a pregnant teen involved in an open adoption. Other actors - Amy Brenneman, David Morse, S. Epatha Merkerson, Elizabeth Peña - elevate the film with their total of one or two scenes.

Bening is a standout as Karen, a 51-year-old woman who still dwells on the baby she bore and gave away for adoption at the age of 14. It is the central fact of her life, and her regret has turned her into a cold and bitter person who lives alone with her mother (Eileen Ryan). The character is prickly and dislikable, as is Elizabeth (Watts). Elizabeth is a crackerjack attorney who jumps from firm to firm and uses her beauty and sexuality as her means of controlling situations, thereby compensating for the abandonment she feels as an adopted child. Bening and Watts dare performances that challenge our capacity for empathy, while Washington has the more conventional role as an infertile woman desirous of a baby to adopt.

Visually, Garcia brings little to the table, though he already established his propensity for anthology storytelling in the films Nine Lives and Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her. Though Mother and Child offers numerous examples among the secondary characters of happy parent-and-child relationships, Garcia also seems to be warning us that children can be the cause of suffering and disappointment and that adoption can lead to pathology.

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