The inability to have a child is often treated as a "white people problem," the province of middle- and upper-class couples who end up resorting to expensive fertility treatments. But Andrew Dosunmu's supple, observant drama Mother of George puts a different spin on this anguishing issue: A woman who longs for a child and finds herself unable to conceive is probably suffering enough already. What happens when her fertility — or lack thereof — becomes everybody's business but her own?
That's the predicament faced by Adenike (Danai Gurira), a newly married woman living in a West African enclave of Brooklyn. Her husband, Ayodele (Isaach De Bankolé), runs his own restaurant, working hard to provide for her. But after a year or so of marriage, Adenike hasn't conceived a child. Ayodele isn't too bothered — he's happy with the couple's life as it is. But he's also insulated from the pressure that his mother (Bukky Ajayi) has been putting on his wife: She sees Adenike's failure to produce a child as a breach of family pride. At first, she suggests reasonably benign fertility aids, like a belly necklace made of beads or a specially brewed tea. But the longer Adenike remains childless, the more her mother-in-law's disapproval grows. In her eyes, Adenike's infertility is an inherent flaw that needs to be fixed, and Adenike finds herself buckling under that pressure.
The plot mechanics of Mother of George hinge on a fairly simple question: How far will Adenike go to bring a child into the world? But the answer isn't all that important. The film is more notable for the way Dosunmu — director of the 2011 Restless City — layers details and textures, capturing the nuances of everyday life among one of the city's many ethnic microcosms. Even more remarkable is just how complicated, and how public, a woman's childbearing challenges can be.
Dosunmu kicks off the movie in the most joyous and hopeful of settings, a wedding, in which the women swirl and sway in polychrome dresses and headwraps, and the music, not to mention the serving of food, seems to go on without end. Adenike and Ayodele look to be deeply in love, and their honeymoon period is fairly extended. Even though Ayodele has plenty to choose from at the restaurant, Adenike, dutiful and affectionate, still brings a home-cooked meal to him at midday, arguing that the food he prepares is for others; this is food she's made only for him.
Ayodele is traditional in many ways — he balks when Adenike tells him that she'd like to go to work, to make some money of her own — but he comes off as relatively enlightened. He refuses to take another woman when Adenike fails to get pregnant, although we learn his friends would be likely to do so — and that the community would not disapprove. And though he initially refuses to investigate whether he might be the problem, he also insists that he wants a life with Adenike, with or without children. Instead of taking the expected route and turning the husband into an easy cultural stereotype, Mother of George — which was written by Darci Picoult — does something more complicated. Ayodele stands as a decent, if flawed, human being.
The real villain here, if there has to be one, is that ruthless mother-in-law, whose pursuit of a grandchild — a boy, of course, would be ideal — intensifies Adenike's sadness.
As Adenike, Gurira is wonderful: Her face is equally radiant whether she's channeling anguish or joy, and she captures the ways in which this woman, so old-country loyal, also longs to join the modern world. She hesitates when her closest friend, Sade (played by the charismatic Yaya Alafia, who also appeared recently in The Butler), single and happily making her own way in the world, tries to persuade her to loosen up a little and buy a somewhat transparent top. Adenike succumbs, partly because she really wants the blouse, and partly because Sade suggests that it might please Ayodele. As it turns out, he disapproves, considering it immodest, and Gurira shows how crushing that rejection feels. It's bad enough that Adenike is both bound by tradition and yearning to break free from it; worse yet, her body is fighting her from within. Ultimately, to have a child, Adenike makes a bold decision, possibly the wrong one, but Gurira makes that choice intensely believable. If there's desperation in her eyes, there's determination there, too.
It doesn't hurt that Mother of George, shot by Bradford Young, is gorgeous. Young won Sundance's 2013 cinematography award for his work on this film and on David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints. While Saints resembles a Terrence Malick-inspired scrapbook, an admiring student's thesis project, Mother of George represents a thoughtful and original matching of visuals to story, and it's one that breathes. The palette is heavy on clear, crisp, alive colors — oranges, reds, cobalts — and the shots are uncluttered and meticulously framed, putting the focus on the characters' faces and feelings. Mother of George is a seemingly straightforward film with some complex underlayers. Why do we want what we want? Biology has something to do with it, but it can never be the whole explanation. Everyone wants someone to love; sometimes it feels imperative to make that someone ourselves.