Casa de los Babys [subtitled in part]

Casa de los Babys

Casa de los Babys is a John Sayles movie about American women (and one who’s Irish or Irish American) who have to go to the Third World to adopt babies. It isn’t stated explicitly why they wouldn’t be able to adopt in their own country, but enough comes out about them (one’s an alcoholic, one prefers women, one’s a little crazy and certainly of low character, etc.) that you can infer why they might be turned down. Their spouses—those that have spouses—are not with them, so it’s a story of just the women.

The movie was shot in Mexico, but I don’t think it’s ever specified where it takes place, beyond somewhere in Latin America. Maybe it is Mexico, but I was picturing South America.

The women are impatient for the adoption officials in this foreign country to make a decision so they can get their baby and go, or at least know that they’ve been turned down and go, but the process is delayed and they have to settle in and live down there for weeks and months. The implication is that this is at least in part intentional, so as to get more of their consumer dollars. (The person who runs the little hotel where they’re staying is even the sister of one of the people making the adoption decisions.)

The movie deals only minimally with their negotiations with the adoption authorities, as basically they’ve already submitted all their paperwork and are just waiting. It’s much more about how they interact in their little social clique that has been created by circumstance, their dealings with the hotel owner and staff and other locals, and also backstories on some of the locals and their life in poverty, helping the viewer understand why so many people give up their babies to be adopted by Americans in the first place.

Some of the reviews I read prior to seeing the movie warned that Sayles tries to tell so many stories about so many characters that the material is superficial, and that it can get confusing trying to keep straight who’s who.

I don’t agree, especially on the second point. I didn’t find it hard to keep track of things at all. I may have been aided in that by the fact that the main characters are almost all recognizable (and quite good) actresses. Plus the movie held my interest well from start to finish, so it was easy to pay attention. I didn’t feel like it was a strain at all to understand what was going on in this movie (even though my aptitude for that with movies in general—especially foreign and indie films—is frankly only OK at best).

As far as whether the movie tries to do too much and so can only cover things in a superficial way, I’m less sure what to say about that.

I didn’t find Casa de los Babys unsatisfying in the sense that not enough information is provided about the women and their situations to understand who they are and where they’re coming from. Actually I felt like I got to know and care about these characters quite a bit. I felt least interested in the Irish woman, and didn’t feel like the material about the local people worked quite as well to draw me in as the material about the women looking to adopt.

It’s true that I was left wanting more, but not because the movie never gets beneath the surface. I would say instead that it got at least as deep about its characters as most movies I see, and that it did it so well that I would have liked to learn even more about them. This movie could have easily been a half hour to an hour longer and kept my interest, which is definitely not something I can say about a lot of movies.

Indeed, what I experienced as most unsatisfying about the movie wasn’t so much the quantity of information that’s revealed in these women’s stories, or the skill with which those stories are told, but the abrupt ending. Sayles made an artistic decision—and I’m not claiming there isn’t anything to be said in its favor—to not have an ending, to not resolve much of anything, to mostly not tell you what happens with these people’s quest to adopt.

So I didn’t mind so much that there were multiple stories running simultaneously, but it would have been nice to know how those stories turned out.

The women looking to adopt are for the most part flawed but likable. Hard-edged Lili Taylor was probably my favorite. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Mary Steenburgen are people I could see myself connecting with to a lesser extent. Daryl Hannah has a coldness that would make it harder for me to feel comfortable with her, though she doesn’t come across as a bad person. Susan Lynch as the Irish woman, as I mentioned, made the least impression on me pro or con.

Maybe Sayles doesn’t give you even more information about these folks because the more that is left open and speculative the less it’s like he’s telling viewers what opinion to have of them. Mostly I didn’t feel manipulated to react this way or that to the characters.

The one exception is Marcia Gay Harden, the clear villain in the group. Surely we’re expected to turn against her, as she is unpleasant from start to finish—hyper-critical of others, a liar, always complaining, playing angles for money, in favor of physical disciplining of children to the point of abuse, etc. Her whole character to me is summed up in a late scene where she pretends “I put in a good word for you” with the local adoption officials to one of the other women on the off chance the woman might feel obligated to compensate her in some way. Regardless of the situation, she’s always looking to squeeze a few pennies out of someone or otherwise pursue her self-interest, and has no problem lying to do it.

About the only counterbalance to that is she is presented as having been shaped by her own ill treatment in life, plus one gets the impression it would be at least as miserable to be her as to be around her, so I could see feeling some sympathy for her and pitying her rather than simply disliking her.

One of the most intense scenes, with potentially quite moving dialogue, occurs between the Irish woman and a young maid who is one of the locals who has given up her child for adoption. Each explains the path of suffering that has brought her to this point in her life.

It’s effective to a degree, but as a viewer I couldn’t get past how unrealistic it feels. Neither can speak the other’s language, so they just take turns talking past each other. I know the point we’re supposed to get is that their facial expressions and body language and such convey all that needs to be conveyed to each other, that their non-verbal expressions of pain enable them to connect. But I just can’t imagine anywhere but in an artsy movie that two people would sit for an extended period speaking mutually incomprehensible monologues to each other.

The scene’s heart is in the right place, but for me it isn’t crafted as smoothly and effectively as the movie as a whole.

Of the movies I’ve written about, the one this most put me in mind of is Heading South, about the middle-aged and older American women who vacation in Haiti so they can be with teenage male prostitutes. On the whole this feels like a better movie, and though both held my interest, this one drew me in even more while I was watching it.

Heading South, though, is a movie that stuck with me more than I would have anticipated. It’s probably in the top 20% of the movies I’ve written about in terms of how often I think about it. (Many I would have forgotten entirely by now had I not written about them, and I never think about unless I happen to read the piece I wrote.) So maybe that’s an indication it hit me a little deeper than I realized at the time. We’ll see if Casa de los Babys has staying power like that, or was just an interesting movie to watch at the time.

Perhaps the main difference between the two—which doesn’t necessarily make one or the other better—is that Heading South has a little more sensationalist content. It has more sex and violence in its storyline. Not as much really happens in Casa de los Babys, not to mention it just ends without resolving much of anything in the story. (Yet even though it’s comparatively uneventful in that sense, the characters are interesting enough and the filmmaking skillful enough that, like I say, I got caught up in this movie substantially more than the average movie I see.)

I’ll give Casa de los Babys a moderate thumbs up. I could see ranking it even higher if it had a more satisfying ending.

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