Casa de Los Babys
review by Dan
Lybarger, 19 September 2003
Writer John Sayles' detractors
sometimes dismiss his self-directed films as civics lessons. When
he's making his own films, Sayles is often more worried about
cultural clashes and other social issues than he is with figuring
how to make things blow up. But to his credit, Sayles can also tap
into the factors that prevent easy resolutions to issues like cross
border immigration, and he's also careful to make his characters
seem more like people than personifications.
That's frequently the case with his
latest inexpensively made and dialogue-heavy film, Casa de Los
Babys. In addition to examining the strains in cross-border
relations between the United States and its neighbors to the south,
Sayles also examines even broader topics like love and motherhood.
He might be examining quirks in legal and political systems, but
he's still capable of making seemingly arcane subject matter
engrossing and occasionally moving.
His protagonists are a group of six
women who are all but stranded in an unnamed Latin American country.
Each is waiting to adopt a child, but all are required to
temporarily live in the country before they can take the tots home
with them. Their hosts
are ambivalent, to say the least, about the would-be mothers. The
frustrated hotel owner Sra. Muñoz (Rita Moreno) has had enough of
one particularly fussy customer (Marcia Gay Harden) but needs the
group's money to stay in business.
The rest of Sra. Muñoz's guests
might be a little more agreeable, but each brings her own baggage.
Skipper (Daryl Hannah) alienates the rest of the group because she's
so preoccupied with fitness, and Leslie's (Lili Taylor) disregard
for men makes the other suspect she's a closeted lesbian. Jennifer's
(Maggie Gyllenhaal) relationship with her husband is at a shaky
point, Gayle (Mary Steenburgen) is a recovering alcoholic and Eileen
(Susan Lynch) is an Irish lass who seems just a little too nice.
Sayles keeps track of all the
would-be mothers and keeps their personalities distinct. He also
gives most of them enough shading to keep them from becoming
stereotypes or ideological mouthpieces. Harden's Nan might have some
irritatingly racist views, but Sayles later reveals that these
aren't the worst of her problems. For a lifelong bachelor who's
never had kids, it's remarkable that Sayles is able to tap into his
protagonists' desires so convincingly.
He also has a good eye for the
region as well. It certainly doesn't hurt that he taught himself
Spanish to write his novel Los Guzanos, and that he's filmed
in Mexico before (Men with Guns). The local residents range
from a wannabe revolutionary who, with some truth, claims the gringas
are stealing his country's young to a maid who hopes that Eileen
will become the mother of a child she's had to abandon.
Sayles doesn't whitewash how
difficult it is for children in these nations, but he's also quick
to point out that some of the adoptees might be better off as
urchins in the street (one shutters at the thought of Nan raising a
Sayles' pacing drags at times, but
he easily atones for it by penning some moving soliloquies and some
choice zingers. When Leslie finds out her hosts are stuck with
television offerings that are worse than in her native New York, she
declares, "Stupidity. It's the universal language."
If Casa de Los Babys is a
civics lesson, it's thankfully delivered by a teacher who’s far
more insightful and witty than many of the ones I had in school.