About halfway through watching Casa de los Babys, I put down my pen and stopped taking notes, mesmerized. John Sayles' 2003 film tells the story of six women living in a hotel while waiting for their adoptions to be finalized. Like many of Sayles' movies, it keeps closely to one location -- in this case, the hotel and the unnamed Latin American city in which it's located -- and mines deeply for interconnecting storylines. We get to know not only the six adoptive mothers, but also the woman who runs the hotel and her grown son; a hotel chambermaid who has given up a child for adoption; plus, tangentially, a group of orphaned street kids; a pregnant teenager and her mother; and a man who's trying to emigrate to improve his children's lives. As the characters bump up against each other, as the women talk to -- and about -- each other, we learn, again and again, how rich and complicated adoption stories always are.
In the scene that caught my attention, Daryl Hannah, playing the unfortunately-named Skipper (I couldn't get the Barbie association out of my head) is giving a massage to Maggie Gyllenhaal's Jennifer. We don't know much about Skipper; she keeps busy swimming laps in the hotel pool, running sprints on the beach, keeping fit. The other women think she's stand-offish and strange. Jennifer is a wealthy young woman who's nervous about the impending adoption, uncertain about her ability to mother and, in a phone call with her husband, a little cowed by his demands that she "make herself a nuisance" to expedite the process. As Jennifer lies on the mat and Skipper gently works on her, they fall in to a conversation about baby names. Jennifer is planning to name her child after her husband, despite her fears that it's "too much of a load" to give a child the name of someone he doesn't resemble. "We looked through a name book," she says, "and we both really liked Joshua, but there are too many Joshuas." "We had a Joshua," Skipper responds quietly.
And just like that, the casual conversation slips into the most powerful scene in the movie. Skipper, never taking her hands off Jennifer, never stopping the massage, reveals that she's suffered three losses: one daughter, stillborn in the third trimester; one son that lived two days after birth; and finally a son that lived a week. "They were incredible," she says quietly of her children. The camera moves slowly between the faces of the two women, holding them in alternating medium shots, close but still giving them space. Jennifer is shocked and sad at what she's hearing; she stares at Skipper and then looks away as if afraid of being too intrusive. Skipper's expression remains calm and focused; she doesn't meet Jennifer's gaze as she carries on with the massage. "How?" Jennifer stumbles, searching for words, "How do you get past that? Losing three babies?" And Skipper's response is both an answer and a direction for the next stage in the massage: "Imagine that you're made of light and that you're spreading outward into a black sky. Lay down."
The scene ends with those words, and before I could even catch my breath, the film moves to another room in the hotel, where another of the waiting mothers, Eileen, can communicate just well enough with Asunción, the chambermaid, to understand that they both come from big families. "Whoever this little girl is that I'm getting, my daughter, she's got a room full of cousins," Eileen says happily, and then pauses. "My daughter. Listen to me! I don't think I've called her that before." Asunción pauses in her work to listen, even though she doesn't understand much English, and Eileen reveals her fantasy of mothering: a snowy day, hot chocolate, ice skating and then, at the end of the day, a local diner where "we sit and talk in the booth and we are surrounded by other mothers and their kids and I am just one of them." All she wants is this simple moment of normalcy, of just being a mom, without any of the questions or justifications she endures while she waits for her baby in this hotel.
Asunción listens quietly and then tells her story (in subtitled Spanish), how she gave up her baby Esmerelda for adoption almost four years ago and still thinks of her. "Sometimes when a new group of mothers comes, I pick one, a good one. I try to imagine her face, her voice. When I think of Esmerelda with her other mother up there in the north I hope that my little girl has found a mother like you." Eileen's reaction echoes the expression we just saw from Jennifer -- she looks stricken; the gap between the two women is so vast, and she knows she can't bridge it with language. But later in the film, when someone asks what she will name her adopted daughter, she says Esmerelda.
These two scenes, back to back, form the warm heart of the film, but the question is whether you are patient enough to get to them. Because the four quiet and complicated women we get to know here are surrounded by characters so angry that I found them difficult to watch. Lili Taylor's Leslie is a New York City book editor who speaks of parenting as a battle and is brashly self-confident about single parenting: "You only have to fight on one front. You think the kid should go to bed at six, there's no big debate." Rita Moreno's Señora Muñoz, who runs the hotel, is precise and well-manicured, impatient with her loutish grown son and his politics of complaint: "Children are a curse," she says. His accusation that she's selling babies, is not, unfortunately, far off the mark.
Marcia Gay Harden plays the most thankless role, as Nan, a racist Midwesterner who bribes her lawyer to move the adoption along so that she won't have so much child development to "undo:" "If you get dealt a weak hand, you can always train it out of them, but it's work. If they are born with some kind of disability -- racial, cultural, whatever -- you make them aware of it, they've got some catching up to do, and you stay on their case." Her words are as breathtakingly offensive as Skipper's are heart-rending. I watched the film several times, wondering if what came off at first as one-note characterizations might feel either comic or more nuanced with repeat viewings; but although I could understand all of these women, could see why, logically, they would feel helpless and thus angry, and even though I wanted to sympathize with them, the writing and performances never brought me any closer.
I love Sayles, though, because he doesn't shy away from unpleasant characters, nor, just as importantly, does he shy away from exploring the intersecting economics of adoption. Elaine skips meals to save money, not knowing how long she'll need to parcel out her limited funds; she's seen cautiously counting her money at the end of each day. She buys a cheap book for one of the street kids (just as he's about to lift her wallet), but he can't read so he tries to sell it for a few cents (his friends also consider trying to sell a used condom). The young father trying to emigrate needs $40K for a passport, $60K if he wants a birth certificate, too; when he gives Jennifer a tour of a historic site, she wonders if offering $4 payment will offend him. Nan makes a big show of throwing her money around, but also bargains aggressively at the local market and steals tiny soaps off the housekeeping cart. The other women think she's a liar and wonder if she should still get a baby, but her lie at the end of the film shows a measure of compassion that made me reconsider even this unpleasant woman.
Her gesture wasn't enough to make me like Nan, and I didn't like a lot of the women in this movie, but I think that's OK. After all, these characters don't all like each other, either. Like any mothers group created by coincidence -- their kids' soccer team, a playgroup, the same pediatrician -- they are thrown together with nothing in common but the hotel where they wait out their adoption limbo. None of them wants to stay as long as they do; Casa de los Babys offers neither the fun and games of sleepaway camp nor the sweet romance of a honeymoon suite. It's more like a bed and breakfast where you might get seated briefly next to an irritating guest. But if you listen, you can still learn something from her story.