Moviegoers have become used to the tapestried, vaguely apocalyptic portraits of modern life in films like Babel, Crash, 21 Grams, Magnolia, and Short Cuts. But rarely — in this often dire genre — has a multi-character composite offered the sweet finish of the poetic Mother and Child.

Directed by Rodrigo Garcia, the son of renowned Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mother and Child feels like a classic women’s film directed by one of the masters of the genre, Douglas Sirk or George Cukor. In this case, however, the melodrama has a very modern twist, focusing on a multicultural cast of characters in a story about three different women’s experiences involving adoption.

Mother and Child zeroes in on motherhood — and offers convincing evidence that there is enough drama, heartbreak, suspense, and agony to hold our interest within that simple scenario.

The heart and soul of Garcia’s film is Karen (Annette Bening), a middle-aged, deeply unhappy physical therapist who had a daughter when she was 14 and promptly gave her up for adoption. It is the loss that defines her life.

We are a culture that tends to put a timetable on grief, but Garcia’s smart, intuitive script recognizes that human beings are far more complicated and that the ramifications of their actions linger for decades. Since that premature separation from her child, Karen has spent her life caring for others, including her sour, emotionally withholding elderly mother and the feeble, recovering patients at her job.

Judging solely on outside appearances, the life of Karen’s abandoned daughter Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) appears to be that of a woman rising above personal tragedy. Living in the same generic Los Angeles as Karen, Elizabeth has grown into a scarily fierce, sardonic, high-achieving lawyer. But just beneath her serene, beautiful surface there’s a storm brewing. She delights in undermining what she has been denied, embarking on a cruel affair with a neighbor whose wife is very pregnant instead of making an emotional connection with her boss Paul (a wonderful Samuel L. Jackson). What initially seems like a choice not to connect to people is later revealed to be a pathology.

Mother and Child‘s third story concerns a young couple, Lucy (Kerry Washington) and Joseph (David Ramsey), whose infertility has pushed them to adopt a child. While Joseph is aloof — in fact, he may be completely disinterested in adopting — Lucy is clearly consumed by her desire for a child. A kindly nun, Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones), introduces them to a young pregnant woman. But the girl’s interrogation of the couple suggests things may not end well for Lucy and Joseph.

All three of these stories intersect — perhaps a little too neatly — in a film so packed with incident, and with sudden changes of course and coincidence, that it can make your head swim. Some of the film’s subtlety is admittedly strained by plot points — a blind character, a dire medical condition — that ratchet up the film’s emotions to a deafening din. But the film’s flaws can’t dim its many virtues: Mother and Child has a depth and heart you don’t often find at the local multiplex.

Mother and Child is also a frolic in actor heaven; it’s filled with the kinds of fascinating, layered characters more typical of literary fiction than contemporary American cinema.

But the real star of the show is Annette Bening, who can go from being battery acid-caustic to heartbreaking in a New York minute. Bening has delivered two extraordinary performances this year, playing very different but equally idiosyncratic women in Mother and Child and in Lisa Cholodenko’s mother-themed The Kids Are All Right. In a summer more typically filled with spastic, bombastic blockbusters, the summer of Bening is turning out to be an embarrassment of riches.

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.