With Mother and Child, the writer-director Rodrigo Garcia adapts the Iñárritu-ish mosaic format for the purposes of high-end soap opera, showing and telling us something about the interconnecting lives of three spiky, individualistic women across the age and colour spectrum. The film passes the Bechdel test early on, and then seeks to deepen our understanding of how the experience of motherhood has affected the three. A brittle, snappy Annette Bening is a care home nurse who gave away her daughter at birth 37 years ago, and has been trying to make up for it ever since; she interrupts tending to the needs of her incapacitated mother solely to display a complete lack of empathy around anybody else, as though to prove she didn't need the love of a dependant in the first place. An ice-cold Naomi Watts, whom we're led to believe may be the daughter in question, is a fiercely independent lawyer and control freak; while Kerry Washington - the heart of the matter, by default of being the least overtly screwed-up of this trio - is one half of a couple getting increasingly fraught in their bid to adopt a child of their own.
With credits including Six Feet Under and the smartly appointed Nine Lives, Garcia has by now done enough of the right kind of television and film to turn in something commendably diverse, skilfully performed (Bening and Watts, in particular, turn somersaults to keep us interested in characters you'd cross the street to avoid in real life) and beautifully shot. His forte lies in the depiction of relationships that shouldn't (and often don't) work: here, he sets up edgy two-handers between Bening and Jimmy Smits as the colleague she keeps rubbing the wrong way, and tries something more delicate and sensitively handled between Watts and Samuel L. Jackson as her widowed boss, who's both amused and taken aback to find that somebody else is calling all the shots for once.
Trouble is, all this sensitivity can only get Mother and Child so far, because all Garcia's script does is flip the gender on all those more than faintly trying American chestbeaters about all those lost little boys with daddy issues; this one's for all those girls who weren't hugged as often as they'd have liked to have been at a formative age, and are only belatedly coming to love their own sons and daughters. As propaganda for babymaking goes, the film is certainly serious-minded - perhaps Garcia's idea of a rebuke to the perceived flippancy and juvenilia of Knocked Up and Juno. Yet that seriousness proves wearying over the two-hour haul: Six Feet Under, which was as interested in new life and regeneration as it was in death, had several other gears to go to.
Eventually, the even-handedness of the writing blands out into patness: when not frantic or frustrated or chilly, the characters are revealed to talk with the exact same voice, so that a young blind white girl expresses herself with a weight of worldly wisdom comparable to that of the Jackson character, or S. Epatha Merkerson as Washington's mother. The platitudes that result are obviously classier (and more tolerable) than those of Motherhood or I Don't Know How She Does It, but as the bellies get rounder and the heads start crowning, the film lapses into the conventional; we miss the great friction of its early scenes the further we get through a madly attenuated final act that seeks to do no more than tie everybody's lives up in a bright pink bow. The frustration is that this much assembled talent should go towards producing content no more profound than a Hallmark card or Benetton poster, but I guess that's the thing with any gestation period: from the first kicks to the swaddling, you never can tell how it's going to turn out.
Mother and Child is currently available on DVD.