John Sayles is not going to make it easy for you.
He is much more interested than questions than answers. Sayles is the ultimate “on the other hand” guy, which may make for more thoughtful understanding but which is difficult to translate to film, a medium better suited to the dynamic, the opinionated, and the one-sided.
Most directors try to grab you. But from the matter-of-fact opening of “Casa de los Babys”, showing an unspecified Latin American city waking up with people coming down from the hills to work and the street urchins beginning to stir, director John Sayles gently tugs on your sleeve.
One of the most prolific of American directors, Sayles has a knack for bringing together complex characters, a sense of history, and subtly revealed longings to create a photo album of being human onto which the audience can project its own conclusions. Here, with an ambitious kaleidoscope of images to coordinate, Sayles does the directorial equivalent of tossing them all into a shoe box to let the characters –- and the audience -— sort them out. The end result is a handful of memorable scenes amidst a jumble of vignettes that never quite feel like a story.
The camera cuts between six visitors and several locals, as their lives cross in that unnamed Latin American city. The visitors are American women, come to adopt local babies and waiting out the months of paperwork, isolated by language. They have nothing in common except for the one thing that matters more to them than anything else. They are together by necessity and get to know one another with a traveler’s intimacy, fully aware they are unlikely to ever meet again, and maybe a little relieved about it.
They represent a spectrum of personalities, from the world-weary Leslie (Lili Taylor) to the childlike Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaal), each there for the same reason — a child — and yet each for different reasons, with different dreams.
With one simple scene where she mutely inspects a doll, Nan (Marcia Gay Harden, Oscar winner for Pollock) shifts from tense future soccer mom to truly sinister suburbanite with an understated psychosis reminiscent of Annie Wilkes (Cathy Bates in Misery) on a bad day. Gayle (Mary Steenburgen) is a study in bland normality, attending AA meetings despite the language barrier, while Skipper (Daryl Hannah) is a soft-spoken exercise addict, using her incessant workouts as penance for her inability to have children. Susan Lynch gives a stand-out performance as the down-to-earth and sweetly natural Eileen, who is rapidly running out of money for her stay.
The limbo which these women occupy is a peaceful hotel enclave decorated in light pinks and populated by more staff than guests. The hotel is run by Sra. Munoz, a stern vision in coiffure and heavy jewelry played by the always impressive Rita Moreno (West Side Story). She has her own maternal concerns — her revolution-minded son, recently released from jail for starting fires is talking alarmingly about the parasitic capitalists who come to snatch babies from local women.
While the Americans wait for their promised babies to be relinquished by the stork of bureaucracy, the audience gets to know some of the locals, including one of the hotel maids whose youth belies her responsibility as household head, and a young girl whose pregnancy rests in the hands of a forceful mother, intent on putting the baby up for adoption. A homeless little boy, trying each day to scratch out enough money to buy spray paint to inhale with his two brothers, dashes in and out of the street scenes and adds one of the movie’s more disturbingly lovely shots as he lies on the beach at night with his cherubic features smudged with gold paint and watches the falling stars.
Sayles wants to keep you off balance, never letting you root for any character for more than a few minutes. Is it wrong to have the country’s primary export be its babies? Is it more wrong to leave the babies where they are and let them grow up to be homeless? There are some beautifully written scenes, especially Gyllenhaal on the phone with her husband and the exquisite dialogue between the young maid and Eileen, connecting despite language.
Parents should know that the movie contains strong language in both Spanish and English, and mature themes. The young boys live in extreme poverty, are addicted to paint sniffing, and support themselves by begging and stealing. One of the adult characters lies and steals from the hospitality cart at the hotel. Discussions between characters cover topics including infant illness, medical procedures for fertility and sexual orientation. A character is an alcoholic. Two characters are encouraged if not forced to put their babies up for adoption.
Families who see this film should discuss the different worlds that people are living in within the same hotel. The man at the fort who explains some of the city’s history is desperately trying to leave his country for Philadelphia. Movies directed by Sayles often have history as a theme. Why does history matter so much to the character of the desperate tour guide? Why would Sayles introduce this character in a movie about the “house of the babies”? Characters in this movie have to decide how much they can do to address the problems they see. Families might want to discuss one’s existential response to the question of what to do about an unfit mother: “Be really good mothers to ours.”
Families who enjoyed this movie might wish to see other John Sayles films including The Return of the Secaucus Seven (which is said to have inspired The Big Chill). For those who enjoy Susan Lynch’s performance, Waking Ned Devine is a wickedly funny little movie. One of Francois Truffaut’s best films is Small Change, a lovely and touching film about children.