CASA de los BABYS —–another social relations beauty in miniature from John Sayles, who wrote, directed and edited this sadly overlooked 95-minute diamond from back in 2003. Critics were polite, the public barely knew it was there (even Sayles fans). Mystifying, as it’s resonant, thoughtful, clever and moving, with sterling ensemble work that features a couple of award-worthy performances. *
A coastal city in an un-named Latin-American country has a patience-tried hotel owner (Rita Moreno) playing host to six American women undergoing a lengthy stay to fulfill requirements for adopting local babies. All are hopeful, each with their different manner and attitude, diverse backgrounds and deep-seated personal reasons for being there. The privileged, out-of-their-milieu Anglo women and their situations are contrasted with the crushing everyday economic situations of the locals. They include the hotel owner’s layabout anarchist son, an unemployed architect forced to scrabble work as a tour guide, street urchins and a maid on the hotel staff.
Wealthy, sweet-natured ‘Jennifer’ (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is pressured by her domineering husband. Thoughtful born-again Christian ‘Gayle’ (Mary Steenburgen) is a recovering alcoholic. Stoic, health-conscious ‘Skipper’ (Darryl Hannah) seems aloof. Kindly ‘Eileen’ (Susan Lynch) pines for the family traditions of her Irish upbringing. New Yorker sharp cookie ‘Leslie’ (Lili Taylor), is single, quick-witted and cynical. She’s Pollyanna compared to ‘Nan’ (Marcia Gay Harden), a blowhard who constantly complains, expresses prejudice and flippantly lies when it suits her. This witch even nicks supplies from the maids cart.
All of the gifted actresses and the superbly picked supporting players are allowed their individual moments to shine, and the group dynamic flows seamlessly (their comments on the DVD editions don’t seem like puff but indicate this really was a production everyone loved being part of).
Three deserve special mention. Playing the maid ‘Asuncion’, aching for the baby she had to give up, Vanessa Martinez is delicately moving, a virtual stand-in for countless poor women in similar distress. Veteran favorite Rita Moreno has one of the best roles in the latter part of her long career as the harried hotel manager: perfectly underplaying what someone else may have overdone, she’s a delight. Most arresting of all is a brilliant piece of nasty work from Marcia Gay Harden. Utterly believable, her domineering shrew is someone you wouldn’t want near a baby crocodile.
Sayles is one of the rare male screenwriter’s who consistently writes thoughtful parts for grown-up women. Woody Allen’s noted for doing that, yet many of his female characters too often lend themselves to brittle and tiresme neuroses (go figure), and can tend to sound like…well, Woody Allen. Sayles’ gals (and his people in general) are all distinctive and natural, marked by depth, nuance and subtle grace points. His social/sexual/cultural observations sell themselves via acuity, spice and overriding compassion: he wields a feather and a flower rather than pliers and a hammer. As with his low-key Alaskan thriller Limbo, this film drew critique from some quarters for leaving storylines open-ended, daring to presume a viewer might have enough basic curiosity and imagination to draw their own conclusions. If a typical script scenario resembles a flood—rising, cresting, falling—Sayles work is more like a stream: you take a dip or watch from the bank, enjoying the flow, appreciation not dependent on the waters origin or destination. Conditioned people can be lazy as hell with their miffs.
Brought in for a scant $800,000, it perversely could not find an audience, taking a depressing $478,031 in the scant 71 theaters it played at in the US, and a flyspeck $47,684 abroad.
Shot in Acapulco, its physical setting providing a story-fit contrast in disparate lifestyles, choices and the lack thereof—-beach and glitzy resort city backed by hillside barrios and jungle, from which the poor trek downhill to serve the well-off. With Dave Baez, Bruno Bicher, Martha Higareda, Pedro Armendariz Jr. (a great bit from an under-used actor). Excellent soundtrack from Sayles collaborator Mason Daring.
* The grade-A work from Rita Moreno (71 and still a sparker) and, especially Marsha Gay Harden (equal to Bette Davis at playing full-on bitches) should have received awards recognition. Harden at least got consolation in another memorable supporting job that year, taking the Supporting Actress Oscar for Mystic River.