Mother and Child (R) (126 min.) — Three women linked by children they want, gave up for adoption or accidentally conceive form the core of Rodrigo Garcia's keenly acted drama. A superb cast takes unwittingly connected routes to an overly melodramatic conclusion; another cliched, Crash-like clash of parallel lives. The emotional breadth of these performances makes the flow chart predictability tolerable.
Annette Bening is at her neurotic peak as Karen, a physical therapist with an invalid mother at home and lasting guilt after giving up a baby as an unwed teenage mother. Garcia's transparent shuffling of Karen's humdrum life with Elizabeth's (Naomi Watts) is an early hint that the younger woman is her long lost daughter.
Elizabeth is a cutthroat lawyer hired at a new firm by Paul (Samuel L. Jackson), an urbane widower who may be flirting with her. She'll be attracted but only on her own salacious terms; sex as a weapon, that sort of thing. Watts plays it amorous but icy, with a hint of psychosis due to abandonment issues. Jackson makes the most of a rare sophisticated character for him; Paul is vulnerable to Elizabeth's charms and wary at the same time.
The third woman is Lucy (Kerry Washington), whose marriage is happy except for an inability to conceive. She and Joseph (David Ramsay) want to adopt but the baby's mother (Shareeka Epps) is pickier than the adoption agency about who'll be chosen.
Each woman's story brings in smaller but no less vivid roles: Karen's maid Sofia (Elpidia Carrillo) brings her daughter to work, dredging up Karen's regrets. A co-worker (Jimmy Smits) tries to be friendly but Karen instinctively repels him. Lucy's mother (S. Epatha Merkerson) is as supportive as her mother-in-law is heartless. Paul's family knows Elizabeth is trouble.
Mother and Child is depressively interesting, with characters constantly ruining their best chances at happiness. Garcia is clearly a feminist — his previous Nine Lives and Things You Can Tell by Looking at Her are equally sympathetic — but he digs such emotional canyons for these women that only a too-pat conclusion can get them out and end the movie. But you seldom see a dead end drama performed as well. B
Steve Persall, Times film critic