Unwanted pregnancy sets up a life of longing and sadness for Karen, now an embittered middle-aged woman dead-ended by her aged mother. Its one of three stories loosely linked in Rodrigo Garcia's outstanding, often painful study of adoption and its consequences. “People don't understand me,” she says to Paco (a wonderfully restrained Jimmy Smits) who despite an avalanche of rudeness is trying to crack through her icy veneer.

Meanwhile, the daughter she gave up 35 years ago (Naomi Watts) is carrying a crate of her own baggage. Now a successful lawyer, she's alternately bedding her new boss (Samuel L. Jackson in a terrifically buttoned-down performance) and her father-to-be neighbour. Unsurprisingly to us, though something of a shock to her, she falls pregnant. Across town, a young couple are desperate to adopt. At least, Lucy (Kerry Washington) is; her husband is vexingly quiet. And while it seems clear from the get-go where all this is heading, Garcia deftly ducks and weaves the story to subdue expectation.

The wealth of talent in front and behind this project is on display for all to see. Exec produced by Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien) and Gonzalez Innaratu (21 Grams), Garcia has worked everything from TV's Carnivale through The Sopranos to Six Feet Under. Formidable on screen support includes Shareeka Epps (Half Nelson), David Ramsey (Dexter) and David Morse (The Hurt Locker), but the movie belongs to its leading ladies. Watts, Benning and Washington have seldom been better, blossoming under Garcia's tender direction.

He's given himself a lot to work with. Anchored on a bedrock of reality – for the mainstay, his characters talk and react like real people – Garcia's screenplay is a powerhouse of circumstance and dramatic grist, particularly in the film's first half. If the bone chilling anger and resentment gives way to something softer by the third act, he makes it entirely palatable. Mother And Child is the kind of story that will resonate long and loud to children in general, and mothers in particular.

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