A screenwriter's butterfly flaps its wings and a chain of events is set into motion, resulting in the latest cinematic ensemble tale of connectivity and yearning. This one's good, though.
Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia's "Mother and Child" interlaces three stories set in contemporary Los Angeles and, as with many other elaborate spoke-and-wheel screenplays ("Crash," "Amores Perros," "Babel," etc.), the characters are ruled by a series of encounters and decisions leading to the moment when the audience says: Aha! So that's how those stories crisscross!
The difference here is one of tone. Garcia's calm, steady guidance behind the camera, along with his nicely finessed faith in a very good cast, makes "Mother and Child" a fuller and more satisfying example of this storytelling style than we've seen lately. It's great to see Annette Bening, in particular, back on screen and playing a central role, albeit a role so initially frosty and then suddenly ebullient that a lesser actress wouldn't have been able to make much sense of it.
Bening plays a physical therapist whose hyper-defensive snark acts as a mysterious love drug to a co-worker ( Jimmy Smits). Thirty-seven years earlier this woman gave up a daughter in a closed-adoption scenario, when she was a teenager.
That baby has grown up to be the fearsome attorney played by Naomi Watts, who's hired early on by a distinguished senior law-firm partner ( Samuel L. Jackson) and is soon sleeping with him. She sees sex as a means of controlling a dislocated, unfulfilled life that has turned her, like the mother she never knew, into a hard shell.
How these two women, mother and daughter, attempt to make their way toward each other provides the through-line. Over on narrative track three, meantime, we have Kerry Washington as a married woman eager to adopt, coping with the stress of the process as well as infertility as best she can. Cherry Jones, luminous and true, plays the conduit to everyone's hopes and dreams, the Catholic nun working at the adoption agency that figures prominently in the story.
The men in Garcia's world tend to be decent, rather passive characters; it's the women who run the show (for once). Garcia, whose earlier works include "Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her" and "Nine Lives," is a dramatist of considerable taste and spare elegance. Some of his emotional switchbacks feel forced (Bening's role, in particular, seems to be missing a transitional scene or two). But Garcia doesn't try to compete with the unruly emotions visually; he and cinematographer Xavier Pérez Grobet control the palette tightly until the feelings warm up later, and the movie exists in a suspended state of tense expectation.
You may buy the increasingly intertwining pattern of Garcia's script; you may resist it. Or more likely both, depending on the scene. But the characters and their dilemmas hold your interest, which is, after all, job one in this business we call classy, well-acted soap opera. Hold the suds.