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Casa de los Babys tells of six privileged, white American women waiting impatiently to adopt babies. They are all staying at a hotel in an unnamed Latin American city that has no shortage of poor folks. Even though director/writer/editor John Sayles is anything but subtle in pointing out the contrast, his meandering yet vivid focus on all of them makes for a compelling, if not entirely satisfying, film experience.
Sayles, an iconoclast known for making intelligent films about complex people who are lost, fearful and full of contradictions (Limbo, Lone Star), has rounded up a dream indie cast; each of these actresses achieves much with minimal time in this 95-minute movie. Marcia Gay Harden plays an angry bigot. Mary Steenburgen is a recovering alcoholic. Lili Taylor is a cynical lesbian. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a young matron in a floundering relationship. Daryl Hannah is a New Age massage therapist obsessed with exercise. Susan Lynch is a single, Irish Catholic who worries about money.
Their inner turmoil and frustration with uncertainties about when they can go home with their children are played against the gritty daily lives of the local Latinos. Rita Moreno is effective as the tough businesswoman who runs the resort where the women spend their days while they wait. Sensitive Vanessa Martinez plays a young hotel maid taking care of her younger siblings with a heartbreaking secret of her own.
But that’s not all. Among the other characters Sayles introduces are a streetwise little boy who inhales gold spray paint with his rapscallion pals, a pregnant teenager with no choice but to give up her child for adoption, and a man in search of work who hopes for better luck playing the lottery.
With this roster of players,Sayles demonstrates his mastery of thumbnail characterization, capturing identifiable human emotion in a brief image or a few lines of dialogue. The healthy heaping of individual impressions is enough to carry the movie, but, when it ends abruptly, it leaves a sense of the incomplete, of less than fully satisfyingportraits of characters who merit more attention than they get. With so little plot or in-depth character development, it’s even difficult to recall their names.
The scenic snippets beg to be soldered together with more action that reveals how these disparate women arrived at their difficult situations and, particularly, how they navigate the bureaucracy and cultural pressures that go hand in hand with adopting a foreign infant. (One of the more telling scenes has the aggressive Harding trying to move things along by throwing money around.) At no point in the movie do the women actually see the babies, but there are a few dreamy sequences in a nursery that would melt even the meanest kid-hater’s heart.
The biggest wonder of Casa de los Babys is that it is profoundly emotional without delving into sentimentality. With its unflinchingly human characters and disjointed structure, it’s painfully, but not excruciatingly, real – as are all of Sayles’ films. It’s easy to forgive the director for omitting extensive introductions, pat endings or connecting every delicate dot. It’s enough that he shares his passion about the many faces of ordinary women and the economic and social forces that drive humans apart. In a film industry where quiet stories about unspectacular people are rarely told, Sayles remains a welcome player, even if he leaves a question or two frustratingly unanswered.
– Leslie Katz