Like vinegar on a wound
is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.
Like a moth in clothing or a worm in wood,
sorrow gnaws at the human heart.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
Director/writer Rodrigo Garcia’s heart-rending story centers on three women, and to a lesser extent on a fourth. The proverb is a good description of the spiritual and emotional life of two of the women. Karen (Annette Bening) is a 51 year-old physical therapist caring for her aging mother Nora (Eileen Ryan), and haunted by her past: she had been forced by her mother when she was a pregnant teenager to give up her infant daughter. Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) is an ambitious 37 year-old lawyer, fiercely independent and reluctant to enter into any commitment, even with her widower boss Paul (Samuel Jackson) who would like to marry her. She also is haunted by her past, often wondering about the mother who had given her up for adoption at her birth. Lucy (Kerry Washington) is a young African American wife unable to conceive a child and thus eager to adopt the one being offered by the pregnant and single Ray. The latter, however, is very choosey, insisting on interviewing perspective parents and laying down specific conditions.
It is hard to like Karen who is the central character in the entwined histories of the three women. Although she provides care for her invalid mother, the two scarcely talk, and she is so resentful that her housekeeper Sofia (Elpidia Carrillo) has established a warm bond with the older woman that she finds an excuse to fire her, this being that Sofia has had to bring her young daughter with her to work. However, her mother refuses to allow it. This is good, because the two younger women eventually become friends, with Karen becoming especially fond of the little daughter. At her workplace Paco (Jimmy Smits), a more cheerful fellow physical therapist gets off on the wrong foot with Karen. When he tries to make amends, she rebuffs him, but he persists, the two slowly, and hesitantly, establishing a fruitful but fragile relationship.
Meanwhile in the lives of the other women a Catholic adoption agency is becoming important. Lucy (Kerry Washington) and her husband are so eager to adopt a child that they agree to be interviewed by the unwed mother Ray (Shareeka Epps). The latter is not the stereotypical unwed mother: she is in college and very concerned that her child will be raised by parents who will love and raise her right.
Meanwhile Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), while continually wondering about the mother who had given her up, breaks off her relationship with Paul, leaving the law firm and finding work in an agency serving the poor. She has discovered that she is pregnant. We won’t reveal here what she does except to say that she decides to visit the adoption agency that had served her mother in an attempt to communicate with her. Broadway actress Cherry Jones plays the head of the agency, the compassionate Sister Joanne, who turns out to be the one person who meets all four of the women. Yes, Karen, wanting to contact the daughter she had been forced to give up years before, also visits the agency. The rules forbid Sister Joanne from revealing the identity and whereabouts of the daughter, but she suggests that Karen write a letter for inclusion in the file, so that if the daughter should get in touch with the agency, the two could be connected.
This is a film that refuses to follow the usual formulas, so expect some surprises along the way, making this one of the best films that I have seen this year. And do not let anyone tell you that because the main characters are women that this is a “chick flick” ! It is NOT; it is a human film, one about choices that people make, the consequences that result, and the possibility of healing from the hurts resulting from those consequences that grace can bring. The bitter sweet conclusion is so apt that viewers willing for a film to leave the well-trodden path of big studio productions will conclude that the film could have ended in no other way! Believers might even want to sing, “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.” Well, maybe not out loud, but still, the thought, and possibly the apostle Paul’s words to the Romans, will come to mind.
1. With which of the women do you most identify? What does each have to contend with?
2. Why has Karen not been able to communicate with her mother through the years? How has Nora apparently felt about her decision to make her daughter give up the child? Why do you think that it was with Sofia, and not Karen, that she shared her remorse? How does Karen feel when Sofia tells her after the mother’s death? How does Karen begin to change under the influence of Sofia and the latter’s daughter.
3. In what ways do we see that Paco is a bearer/conveyer of grace? What does he bring to Karen that she needs?
4. How has Elizabeth developed, growing up and not knowing her birth mother? How do we see that she has retreated from making lasting commitments? Why is she so resentful of the woman doctor? What consequences does her go-it-alone attitude have?
5. Compare the pregnant Ray with what Karen must have been like when the latter was in a similar position. How is Ray trying to be a responsible mother? Had she decided to keep the child, what might have been the consequences? How is what she decides probably best for her; for the child; for Lucy?
6. What burdens does Lucy bear, especially after she and her husband commit to the adoption, and he—?
7. How is Karen a more rounded person by the end of the film? Although we are saddened by what happens to one of the characters, how is the ending still a satisfying one?
8. Although we might wonder whether or not Karen is a believer, might we be able to affirm the apostle Paul’s claim as it applies to the developments in the film?