– ROBERT W. BUTLER

McClatchy Newspapers

“Mother and Child” employs the “Crash” model by weaving together several stories on a common theme.

But instead of race and violence, Rodrigo Garcia’s film is about motherhood, a topic that might strike some as prosaic.

It’s anything but. Superbly acted, featuring characters who dig into your conscience and consciousness and dish dialogue with real teeth, “Mother and Child” is a worthy successor to Garcia’s brilliant 2005 release, “Nine Lives.”

Though it has more than a dozen major characters, the film centers on two women.

Karen (Annette Bening) lives with her elderly mother and continues to obsess about the daughter she bore out of wedlock at age 15 and gave up for adoption. Her regrets have made Karen brittle and judgmental.

“I’m not a difficult person,” she defends herself to a co-worker (Jimmy Smits) who has made gentlemanly advances only to be savagely cut down.

Her self-analysis elicits laughs from those of us who have seen just how difficult Karen is, but in a way she’s telling the truth. Garcia is a great humanist searching for the good beneath the crippling baggage most of us carry. And he finds it.

The other woman is Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), a fiercely competitive lawyer and sexual adventurer who prefers not to work with other women. “I’m not into sisterhood,” she tells a prospective employer (Samuel L. Jackson). “I’m my own person.”

Once we learn that Elizabeth was adopted at birth and grew up unhappy, it takes no great detective skill to deduce that she is Karen’s long-lost child. The obvious outcome is a mother-and-child reunion, but Garcia is too clever to do the obvious. He takes us places we don’t expect while avoiding those we do.

The most important subplot features Kerry Washington and David Ramsey as a couple desperate to adopt. To do so, they must sell themselves to a fiercely smart pregnant 20-year-old (Shareeka Epps) who already has rejected a half-dozen prospective parents.

And talk about a cast with depth: S. Epatha Merkerson, Cherry Jones, David Morse, Amy Brenneman, Elizabeth Pena, Lisa Gay Hamilton … without doing anything showy, these fine actors quietly burn up the screen.

Garcia, who most recently has directed episodes of HBO’s “In Treatment,” is the rare filmmaker who cares passionately about character and how it is revealed through dialogue. “Mother and Child” could be a stage play, so ruthlessly does it shave away the unnecessary and zero in on what really matters.

Mothers are everywhere in this film — we meet the moms of all the major characters — and in lesser hands this narrow focus on one topic might seem forced. But Garcia keeps his various stories flowing and in perfect balance.

Best of all, he shows restraint in working toward his big emotional payoffs. not obviously playing to our tear ducts, he makes that release all the more effective.

PREVIEW

“MOTHER AND CHILD,” starring Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia. Rated R for sexuality, brief nudity and language. Running time: 2:05

Opening at: Eveningstar (Brunswick) Fri-Thu 1, 5:15