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It’s the time spent together that matters

September 20, 2009

That’s the mantra of Rodrigo Garcia’s film “Mother and Child“, recently screened at TIFF. I saw it on the last day of the festival, along with another film which is for another post. This film, though not as avant-garde or inspiring or shocking as some of the masterpieces, is probably my personal favorite. Rodrigo Garcia unfolds the film in a quiet, direct, and fluid way, and the characters jump out starkly in their honesty and rawness. It resonated with me deeply.

We see three women who each leads a very different life. Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) is a 37 year old lawyer. Beautiful, bright and successful, she moved back to LA and interviews at a big law firm ran by Paul (Samuel L. Jackson) and gets the job on the spot. She’s precise in the way she steers her life and has her sights set on becoming a judge. Emotionally, she is just as precise, exuding a cool and calm exterior that is impenetrable. She values her independence above all things, and that includes men. She uses them for sexual pleasure when she wants to, where she wants to, how she wants to, almost in detached amusement. Men are intrigued by her detachment and, perhaps, equally perplexed and fascinated to the point of their own detriment.

Karen (Annette Benning) shares Elizabeth’s desire to control her own life, though she does so poorly and is barely holding it all together. Karen works as a personal therapist in a nursing home during the day, and cares for her ailing mother at home at night. At every waking moment she is haunted by the memory of giving up her daughter for adoption more than 3 decades ago at the age of 14. She notes her birthday at breakfast, and the words hang heavily in the air. The mother looks away, and hardly ever looks back. In fact, the mother and daughter barely share any meaningful interaction with each other. They go through the routine with a dryness and numbness that is palpable. Whatever happened has sucked the life out of their lives, and they go on like ragged paper dolls, ready to be rip to pieces at the tiniest tugs.

Lucy (Kerry Washington) is a young 20 something years old that works at a cakeshop with her mother. Surrounded by the sugary sweets and colorful frostings daily, her own life is overwhelmed with the bitterness of her inability to have children. Her husband is a “prince”, as hailed by Lucy’s mother-in-law, and even though they seem to adore each other, he wants a child. Lucy suggests adoption, and they both sign up to the idea. Adoption is hard business, and Lucy go through the process with a frantic desperation. She tries her hardest to please, and finally meets a 20 year old woman who agrees to give her her unborn baby, after countless interviews and questioning.

The plot unfolds from there on in an unexpectedly expected fashion. Each women encounters people who challenge them, push them beyond their comfort zone, and force them to question what is really important to them in their lives. There is a slew of supporting characters who without, the movie would not hold.  Their lives also head toward not a collision course, but a gentle crossing – and even though we see it coming, we still can’t help but be moved when it does.

The universality of this film lies in its central characters. Every woman can probably see herself in Lucy, Karen, or Elizabeth, or all of them. Even men can identify with the duty of parenthood and the responsibility of children, and the difficulty of maintaining a meaningful relationship between the both. Life is complicated, but the important things also boil down to simple terms: where you come from, where you are going, and finding yourself in between.

Benning showcases a huge range of emotions here, from guilt-ridden to awkward to joy. She’s always excellent, and this is no exception. However she does lay it on a bit thick, and at time I wonder if Karen is bipolar herself. Kerry Washington shines as Lucy, infusing moments of humor with drama seamlessly. She has risen steadily from her role in “Ray” to now, and I have no doubt she will shine even brighter in the future. The stand-out performance though is that by Naomi Watts – she somehow manages to portray the gradual evolution of Elizabeth’s inner conflict that ebbs and flows beneath that frosty exterior with such delicate vulnerability. There’s not much speech, often it’s just a look, the way she steps, and the silence that she responds with when prodded. Watts is amazing in this role, and I hope she gets a nomination for it. Jackson’s presence is refreshing in this film – he often plays an extreme character of some sorts, but here he just plays a normal guy with normal morals. And he does it with such restraint and grace that it is completely believable. There is a scene between Watts and Jackson when they first become intimate that is breathtaking – there is no nudity, but you’ll know what I mean when you see it.

It’s not blood, but the time spent together that matters – this is a theme that is threaded with the topic of adoption throughout the film. Adoption has become a high-profile topic these days, almost a trend with the numerous celebrities now toting a baby from another country. There are so many homeless children in this world that I am a huge supporter of adoption, and a believer that it is the time spent that matters. However, it’s important to not lose sight of the fact that for every child that starts a new life with his/her adoptive family, he/she is leaving behind a previous one. They come from somewhere…some one, and maybe, they will want to know that some day.

I always wondered: how important are our pasts? Do we need to know our pasts in order to tread successfully into our futures? Are we somewhat damaged if we missed out on our past, or, choose to leave them behind? How much of what we become is based on where we come from?

There is one scene where Lucy is asked in an adoption interview whether she believes in god. She tries to sugarcoat the answer at first, but upon insistence, confesses that she believes in only this life, and the things we do in this life, that matters. What an honest answer. Some may disagree. But regardless, isn’t it better to go with this theory than not? After all we are in this life now, and we are not beyond it. And even if you believe that something exists afterwards, it doesn’t diminish the value of this life that you are living now. Each moment – passes, and never returns again.

To time spent together, everywhere, in this life.

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