Dir. Rodrigo García
(2010, R, 127 min)
★ ★ ½

Mother and Child is a film about adoption that never lets us forget it’s about adoption. It’s the subject of scenes even when it doesn’t make sense for it to be, as when the owner of a high-powered law firm asks his new associate why she never searched for her birth mother, or when, at a family picnic, another character’s step-daughter asks out of nowhere why she’s never searched for the daughter she gave up. We’re not watching characters who have experienced adoption. We’re watching characters written entirely around adoption.

Naomi Watts, as Elizabeth

The film is written and directed by Rodrigo García, whose previous work I have admired: Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her, a 1999 television movie that is stylistically of a piece with this film, and the drama series In Treatment, a psychotherapy drama that by its nature requires subtle, precise attention to character. In this film he has his heart in the right place. He films his story with an airy tenderness that elicits our sympathy, but his screenplay doesn’t let his characters breathe. Telling three parallel stories required to intersect at precise moments, he diagrams the emotional beats too rigidly. He introduces supporting characters who are unnaturally candid because the story requires them to be (for instance, a chatty blind girl played by Britt Robertson). Contrivances undermine the emotional impact.

The center of the story is Karen (Annette Bening), a fifty-year-old woman who conceived a child when she was fourteen and gave her up for adoption. The child, now in her thirties, is Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), a lawyer so severe that she’s nearly absurd; she has a personality like razor blades and jagged ice. In her very first scene, dressed in unfriendly black and explaining to a prospective new boss (Samuel L. Jackson) how other women find her threatening, I thought to myself, “The costume designer isn’t going to need to spend a lot on color, is she?”

The third storyline involves Lucy (Kerry Washington), who is unable to conceive a child of her own and has decided to adopt with her husband (David Ramsey). Lucy at first seems disconnected from the other characters, apart from her interactions with an adoption agency run by kindly Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones), but rest assured that their lives all converge in ways only a screenwriter with notions of profound fatefulness could devise, and eventually the despair turns to manufactured uplift. I wasn’t convinced.