Baby game 

Politics undermine potent Casa de los Babys

Six women wait with a mixture of expectation and trepidation in an unnamed Latin American coastal town. The atmosphere suggests a vacation, but there are no men around and the stress level is too high for anything like relaxation. The women instead wait in a tortuous bureaucratic limbo to adopt one of the crib upon crib of babies who live at the local orphanage, the Casa de los Babys.

The Casa is a kind of cosmic way station where the kindly nurse who tends the babies calls them "my army of souls." And the film takes a similarly metaphysical approach in showing the emotionally fraught transfer of the babies' lives into someone else's hands. Babys also plumbs the psychology and the various motives and flaws of the six women, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, Daryl Hannah, Marcia Gay Harden, Susan Lynch, Mary Steenburgen and Lili Taylor, who wade through endless bureaucratic red tape to adopt them.

Babys is not a flattering portrait of American values. Most of the women are strident and judgmental. They are so focused on philosophical approaches to parenting and blatant neediness that they contrast badly with the painful day-to-day struggles of the native Latin women like hotel maid Asuncion (Vanessa Martinez), who had to give up her baby to raise a brood of brothers and sisters.

Casa de los Babys is driven by its cast of women, who can be divided into two camps -- neurotics or victims -- or a combination of the two. Tensions emerge between the women, who share close quarters and the same vulnerable status, but who are competing for their babies in a sense. They pay shrewd attention to the size of each other's pocketbooks, the stability of each other's marriages and the suitability of each other to motherhood.

Director John Sayles (Limbo, Sunshine State) tackles some heavy material in Babys, including the enormous economic divide that makes Americans into consumers and other countries into manufacturers, even when that commodity is children. His film is also about how parenting defines the life of a child: the fate of each of these babies is like a Lotto, Sayles argues. Their fates will be determined by the kind of parent who adopts them.

Sayles remains one of the indie cinema's most persistently political directors, particularly focused on how economic matters trickle down to affect real people in real ways.

As always, the director has much to say, and he uses his various characters to tackle different sides of the parent/child dynamic. In one parallel story, an abandoned street child who washes windows for pocket change and sniffs paint is one of the no-longer-cute orphans unlucky enough to pass beneath the radar of both his country and the American mothers. In another, a pregnant middle-class teenager stands by while her mother plots giving the child to the orphanage, demonstrating how someone else's pain always lies on the other end of the adoptive mother's happiness.

But there is something essentially dissatisfying in Sayles' approach. The film suffers from the problem of too many characters, which leaves scant room for an appreciation of the individual women, who are portrayed superficially as recovering alcoholics and rich girls with troubled marriages. The exceptions are Daryl Hannah, whose complicated relationship to healing and exercise may be a response to her own physical loss, and an Irish Bostonian played by Susan Lynch, who seems to exhibit the most instinctive and emotional promise of good mothering.

Casa de los Babys is an important and relevant film, full of potent ideas about the under-explored topic of parenting and the baggage involved in looking to children to heal the wounds in one's life. But like so many of Sayles' other films -- which are arguably head and shoulders above much indie product -- Babys is still not a great film as it becomes too mired in its politics and a sketchy view of female psychology to achieve artfulness.



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