Casa de Los Babys
As with nearly every Sayles film, Casa de Los Babys is simply a snapshot of a short period in the broad lives of its characters. The audience arrives in the middle of the story lingers for awhile, and then the characters depart. With his latest film, Sayles drops his audience off at the "Casa de los Babys," a hotel where six Caucasian women wait to adopt a Mexican baby.
Each woman has decided on adoption for a different reason, and each one has a different opinion on children and parenting. Some would clearly make better mothers than others, but Sayles leaves that up to the audience to decide.
The back story of each woman is revealed a little at a time, and though no one character is given more than ten minutes to explain herself, Sayles' group of actresses do an outstanding job of distinctly defining their characters. Nan (Marcia Gay Harden) is catty and judgmental, Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhall) is young and hopes the baby will save her marriage, strong-willed and independent Leslie (Lili Taylor) wants to prove she can raise a child on her own. Skipper (Daryl Hannah) is a loner who has suffered greatly but channels her pain into physical fitness, Gayle (Mary Steenburgen) is a recovering alcoholic who has become a born-again Christian and sees motherhood as a way to redefine herself. Finally, there is Eileen (Susan Lynch), a financially strapped woman with a wealth of love and heart.
Two things about this film really struck me. First of all, the cast is almost exclusively female. There are three small male supporting roles but the women are really on their own. No husbands, no male doctors, even the hotel owner is a woman. I dare you to name another film like this one. The other interesting thing about Casa de los Babys is that the film spends only about sixty percent of its screen time on the six mothers. The rest of the time is spent observing the world around them and visually answering questions like:
What happens to the children who aren't adopted? and
What kind of people are the mothers who give their children away?
These small side stories bring such depth to the world of the film, and are so powerful without ever evoking one sappy violin from the soundtrack. Sayles reminds us that just a simple story told truthfully and from the heart can be better than any epic melodrama with a budget in the hundreds of millions. I don't know why anyone forgot in the first place.
God bless John Sayles for making films with a conscience. Casa de los Babys is just one in a great series of films including Men With Guns, Matewan and Lone Star which present a fictional story in a place that is all too real. Though Casa de los Babys is not Sayles' best film, it is a better (and shorter) film than the somewhat over-developed Sunshine State.
Maggie Gyllenhaal and Susan Lynch deliver the best performances of their career and indie greats Marcia Gay Harden and Lili Taylor are in top form. But the best performances are given by two Spanish-speaking actresses Vanessa Martinez (who first appeared as the young Pilar in Sayles' Lone Star) and the great Rita Moreno (West Side Story). Martinez plays a young woman, barely out of her teens who works as a maid and raises her two younger siblings alone. In a powerful scene with Eileen (Susan Lynch) she listens as Eileen describes her dream to be a mother, then recounts her own story of giving up her daughter. Moreno is the feisty and uncompromising owner of the Casa de los Babys who has exactly the right amount of intolerance for the fussy mothers to be.
I've seen John Sayles speak a couple of times and it absolutely wrecks me that he should ever have to struggle for funding. Yet, I get the feeling that Sayles would make a film for a hundred dollars if it meant he could share a story with someone.
I'd to think that with each film John Sayles picks up a few more fans. Perhaps expecting parents will see Casa de los Babys for its examination of different philosophies on parenting. Perhaps they will like it and spend those future sleepless nights watching his other great films: Matewan and The Secaucus 7 (which just came out on DVD). Maybe their children will grow up and watch The Secret of Roan Inish and Eight Men Out and one day, some of them, will grow up to be directors and screenwriters and put the art of filmmaking back where it's supposed to be.
-Megan A., Denny