As we were leaving the movie theater after watching the new Annette Bening film, Mother and Child, my husband leaned into me and said, “I usually don’t like movies with sad endings, but that one was good.” What surprised me was not that my husband enjoyed Mother and Child, a character-driven indie flick still in limited release as it struggles for multiplex screen space against summer action flicks and sophomoric comedies. Mother and Child has a compelling plot, complex characters, mature themes and talented actors. What’s not to like?
My bewilderment stemmed from my husband labeling Mother and Child, a movie whose ending I thought was hopeful and inspiring, as “sad.”
A stint in marriage counseling from a previous life taught me that each person has his or own “movie” of any relationship. Thus, a neutral third party can hear almost any marriage described separately by the husband and wife and legitimately wonder if these two people are even in the same marriage. That’s because we each bring our own unique perspective to a relationship based on our distinct personalities, family history, life experiences and even our DNA, differences that filter what each person sees and hears, resulting not only in dramatically different perspectives, but sometimes even totally different narratives.
When we watch a theatrical movie, a similar phenomenon occurs. Based on the complex mixture of ingredients that comprise who we are, we absorb those parts of the movie that speak to our personal experience and filter out that which does not apply.
Spoiler Alert: Mother and Child Ending Revealed
If you have not yet seen Mother and Child, you may wish to stop reading now and return to this article after you have seen the movie.
At the end of Mother and Child, the lead character Karen (Annette Bening) learns that because of a clerical error, she will never meet the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was 14. At age 37, Karen’s daughter Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) had finally written a letter requesting a meeting with her biological mother-the neurotically obsessed Karen-who had previously submitted a letter to the adoption agency expressing a desire to meet the daughter she had not seen since the day she delivered her. But because Elizabeth’s letter was errantly placed in the wrong file, Karen is devastated to learn that her daughter died in childbirth betwixt the time her letter was received and the error was spotted.
My husband, whose younger brother died in a tragic bicycle accident when they were both children, perceived the ending of Mother and Child to be sad, because Karen would never have the chance to get to know the daughter she gave up for adoption. My husband similarly never got to know his brother from the point at which he died, and, more than 50 years later, he still feels the loss profoundly. The permanence of death and the loss of the relationship that could have been resonated within Drew in a way I could never fathom, since I have never suffered a similar loss. For him, the tragic loss of the mother and daughter’s opportunity to forge a relationship overshadowed other elements of the ending of Mother and Child that I found more bright and hopeful.
As a woman in her fifties who has undergone transformation in mid-life, as did Karen, I related to the beautiful flower Karen had blossomed into at the end of the movie, an almost miraculous shift from the prickly cactus version of Karen who appeared in the first half of the movie. Even though the new-and-improved Karen would never have a relationship with her biological daughter, she now has a healthy relationship with the sensitive and caring Paco (Jimmy Smits) and the promise of a relationship with Elizabeth’s daughter, Ella, who was given up for adoption after Elizabeth died in childbirth.
No doubt an infertile couple, a mother who has adopted a baby or even the mother of a teenaged girl who influenced her daughter to give up a child for adoption would have still different, yet equally valid, perspectives of Mother and Child and its complex, ambiguous ending. As with a marriage or any relationship, the movie Mother and Child is many movies, and the movie you see will largely depend on the person who is sitting in your seat at the movie theater.