Admittedly, "The Good Mother" (citywide), the story of a divorced mother who risks losing custody of her child, traverses an emotional mine field. But the outrage the film may generate doesn't spring from the film's subject. It rises when an audience has been given no clear message as to where the film makers stand on their story's basic issue: Is Anna Dunlap a good mother or not?
To lay out the details in this adaptation by Michael Bortman of Sue Miller's 1986 novel: Some time before the film begins, Anna Dunlap (Diane Keaton) has ended a 7-year marriage whose only plus, in her eyes, was the birth of a daughter, Molly (Asia Vieira.) Although--as we learn in a long and excruciatingly poorly staged opening sequence--her family is more than comfortable, Anna spurns their offer of support, preferring to take Molly to a lively day care center and to work part time to retain their independence.
Onto this scene comes Leo Cutter (Liam Neeson), a charming Irish-born, Yale-educated sculptor who's already gaining recognition beyond the Cambridge, Mass., area where they both live.
As the two begin to see each other exclusively, the constricted and skittish Anna discovers depths of sexual fulfillment with Leo that she had never felt before. Before long, he's a frequent overnight guest, gentle and affectionate with Molly as well.
Suddenly, ex-husband Brian (James Naughton) shows up alone when he's supposed to be returning Molly. He is bringing suit for custody, claiming that Cutter has sexually molested his daughter.
When Anna, aghast, demands to know what has happened, Cutter explains quietly. He has seen that in Anna's household sexual honesty is cherished. (We've already seen Anna reading to her daughter from a children's book about reproduction.) One afternoon while baby-sitting, he'd taken a shower and Molly walked in. Curious, she'd asked if she could touch his penis. Embarrassed, but believing that his feelings run against Anna's teachings, he lets her. The moment is over almost immediately, but it becomes the pivotal matter in the custody hearing.
For "The Good Mother" to have a case, we must believe that Anna and Leo did nothing wrong. Their standards may have been more relaxed than a vast number of families', but Anna was trying to bring up her daughter in a healthy and less sexually repressive atmosphere than her own had been. Certainly by casting the warm and sympathetic Neeson, whose compassionate performance is the film's single shining virtue, director Leonard Nimoy reinforces that feeling. It's the last clear message the film will give.
Almost everything we need to understand about the characters is missing. The husband, certainly one of the crucial players, is almost a cipher, if an angry one. We don't know how or why their "nothing" marriage ended. We don't know whether he was carrying around undischarged anger toward Anna even before the incident. We never even see his second wife, who might certainly shed some light on the sort of man he is.
Actually, one further incident of "sexual guilt" which we do see, is recounted differently by Anna. Molly, half-awake and startled by something, comes to her mother's room one night when Cutter is there. Anna and he had been making love, but when Molly clambers onto the bed, next to her mother, they stop, and Molly falls asleep again almost immediately. However, in court, Anna says they made love while Molly was in the bed. If they did, we weren't shown it.
Bit by bit, we are deprived of any character to like. Going to grandparents Ralph Bellamy and Teresa Wright for money, Anna discovers lifelong bullying and barely-suppressed hatred between them that she never encountered before. (Only Wright remains on the side of the angels.)
Anna herself is foolish and vacillating. It's nice to find a defense of mothering as an occupation of choice; unfortunately, Anna's words come in '60s-speak rhetoric. In the courtroom, on the advice of her lawyer, she betrays Cutter, then in the film's coda, betrays everything that she has been shown to stand for.
It's not even a strong performance. In "Baby Boom," Keaton's awkwardness with the baby was just right--this kid was thrust upon her, and she had to ease into familiarity with it. Here, she's been directed to do what so many actors do around youngsters: She's constantly "on," overbright, overtender, oversolicitous. If you sell yourself this way to kids, they spot it in a minute and give you a wide berth. Young Vieira has her own level of overachievement, so all in all, it's enough to make your face ache.
"The Good Mother" sends us out unsure of what it means to tell us--except perhaps what we've suspected from as far back as "The Mission"--that Liam Neeson is a real hero for the '80s, one of our few. On every other subject it equivocates or sends hopelessly confused messages.
And ambiguity, about an issue as clear-cut as the line between acceptable sexual behavior in a family situation and sexual molestation, is the last thing a subject this delicate needs.