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Four years ago we handed a Best Picture Oscar to Crash, and ever since we have been punished for it. The "hyperlink" movie, in which a series of random stories that would have been just fine on their own are linked together because they fit some vague theme, allowing the movie to say Big Things about Life and Love without any of the individual stories having actual insight.
So here we are with Mother and Child, a movie about exactly what the title suggests and nothing more, with shockingly little to say about any of the convoluted stories at its center. About a mother and daughter separated at birth, with Kerry Washington's character in between them mostly as a plot device, the movie shifts from one melodramatic story to the next, trying in vain to build believable character arcs and meaningful plot developments, and turning into merely a second-rate tearjerker in the process.
Karen (Annette Bening) got pregnant when she was 14 and gave up Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) for adoption, a decision that haunts her for the rest of her life. 37 years later Karen is caring for her ailing mother and distinctly bad at building relationships with anyone at work, including the handsome new guy (Jimmy Smits) somehow unfazed by her icy response to anything resembling friendship. Meanwhile Elizabeth is also in Los Angeles and building a career as a successful lawyer; the script pretty much forces her to lay her entire philosophy on the line during a job interview, during which she explains she's been living on her own since age 17, has no plans to have a family, and is essentially the human personification of one of those glass-walled modernist apartments, which of course she also lives.
Disconnected to all of this until the last 10 minutes is Lucy (Kerry Washington), one of those fictional movie characters who manages to make a swanky living off running a bakery, and who is trying to adopt a baby alongside her husband (he plays so little of a role in the film I won't do him the disservice of crediting him). One pregnant 20-year-old (Shareeka Epps) seems to think Lucy is the right one to adopt, but Lucy has to go through a barrage of interviews and meetings before she can make the cut, and the whole interview process brings up a lot of questions both internally and with her husband.
We're supposed to watch the development of all three women as motherhood, or lack thereof, affects their lives and the choices they make. But despite fine performances from all three women, their characters are neither well-defined or logical, rendering their stories vaguely interesting but distant, almost like watching something in another language. Elizabeth is so harsh and driven and self-centered that she ceases to feel real, while Karen is so stuck in her own grief over losing Elizabeth that the character barely goes anywhere at all. Washington gives her usual cheerleader effort to Lucy, but until the end her character lacks too much attachment to the rest of the story that you have to wonder what she's doing there.
Watts brings a steely reserve to Elizabeth but can't make sense of this alien character, while Bening's work as a frustrated middle-aged woman feels more familiar than it ought to. As the movie pulled hard on the reins to jerk the tears out of its audience in the last half hour, I was definitely one of few people with dry eyes in the house, but I can't have been the only one who felt thoroughly manipulated. Mother and Child is classy and well-acted and well-shot, but it's just another variation on the same old Hollywood schlock.
For more of our Sundance 2010 coverage, click here.