This 2003 movie written, directed, and edited by John Sayles, is about six women in an unnamed Latin American country who are waiting to adopt babies. I like Sayles' films, for he probes difficult issues in a way that gets at opposing but very human views, and his cinematography and use of music are exemplary. This film is no exception, and is additionally blessed with a very strong, largely female, cast.
Lili Taylor plays Leslie, a mouthy New Yorker who's tired of waiting for the right man to come along and has decided to take matters into her own hands. Daryl Hannah is the athletic Skipper, hiding a tragic story and loss behind relentless jogging and crunches. Maggie Gyllenhaal is Jennifer, a weak-willed young wife hoping to provide her ambitious husband with a junior version of himself. Susan Lynch is Eileen, who desperately counts her dwindling funds as she waits longingly for the dreamed-of daughter. Marcia Gay Harden is Nan, abrasive and racist, and not afraid to threaten or bribe the foot-dragging local authorities to get a baby sooner. Mary Steenburgen is Gayle, a recovering alcoholic who tries to smooth the waters as varying combinations of women gossip and gripe about each other while they wait helplessly for the wheels of the local bureaucracy to deliver their dreams.
This being a Sayles film, the movie echoes with vignettes of the lives of all the surrounding characters. Rita Moreno plays owner and manager of the hotel the locals call "Casa de los babys", and she fairly sizzles with contempt for the American women who stay there, surpassed only by her lazy alcoholic son, given to spouting vitriolic anti-imperialist slogans with his drinking buddies at the local taverna. Vanessa Martinez is a young chambermaid who delivers a sad Spanish monologue to Eileen (who understands not a word) of her own tale of loss: she gave a child up for adoption while still a teen and now cares for her younger brothers and sisters. Her story is mirrored in the present day by that of a pregnant teen whose domineering mother is desperately trying to get the child into an orphanage once it's born. Then there are the homeless street urchins, begging and stealing to get money to buy spray paint to sniff, thus reminding the viewer of the fate of too many unwanted kids in third world countries; and the engineer who is reduced to acting as a tour guide for the women to support his young family.
The movie seems almost like a documentary in its breadth and even-handed portrayal of a complex situation involving many characters and points of view. But it was missing one aspect that I think a real-life documentary would have included: tales of love, and of broken hearts and betrayal. What led the chambermaid to become pregnant at 14? We see a hint when the pregnant teen meets the young dandy who presumably swept her off her feet, but the meeting is devoid of any sexual spark. We see no hint of the misguided crushes or romantic yearnings that can lead teenage girls to succumb to the advances of suave boys and young men. Similarly, the americanas have no partners with them to portray a caring relationship; all we see is a one-sided conversation between Jennifer and her absent husband, the fragile young woman unable to explain why she's still waiting and ending up in tears, the phone connection broken, whether by accident or deliberately by him we don't know. It seems a strange world of monads or, at best, dyads of parents with children: no relationships of equal romantic partners exist. It's quite unsettling.
The documentary features on the DVD version of the movie that I saw contain some interesting tidbits. Sayles freely admits that he made this movie in part because good roles for women, especially older ones, are scarce, and he knew he would be able to put together a kick-ass ensemble cast. The six actors, for their part, soon decided that they didn't want to stay at the hotel in Acapulco that had been booked for them (and where the movie was filmed), and moved into a large house together where they bonded as a group. In interviews they speak about how unusual and wonderful it was to work together as women without the frisson of male characters intruding; perhaps this is the reason why Sayles left such relationships out altogether.
A very interesting movie, as all of Sayles are. Highly recommended.