‘Earth Mama’ recap: A24’s Savanah Leaf drama is a triumph
Sundance: Now, meet the names Savanah Leaf (director) and Tia Nomore (first actress).
Now, meet the names Savanah Leaf, first-time feature filmmaker, and Tia Nomore, first-time feature film actress, because their debut film, Earth Mama, is a shimmering stunner. As a former volleyball Olympic athlete, Leaf has a keen eye for locating the subversion and beauty in a welfare drama about a single mother fighting for her life and her children. What sounds like a challenging sit on paper is actually a wondrous 97-minute feature film whose director and star are clearly poised for greatness.
Any film that delves into the petty and punishing bureaucracies of the care system risks falling into melodramas or cliches, but Earth Mama largely avoids these rookie traps, and with an unpredictable and fiercely focused actress at its roots. Leaf searched far and wide for a non-actor from the Bay Area to play Gia, a young black mother whose son and daughter are in limbo in foster care from a near-nonexistent father while she recovers from drug addiction and Barely a dollar left on her prepaid cell phone credit. A frequent performer on the Bay Area freestyle battle rap circuit, Tia Nomore was training to be a black family doula when she was cast, and her personal connection runs through the material.
That Gia has hope while trapped in a contraption designed almost specifically to work against her and other black single mothers like her is a miracle. She’s 37 weeks pregnant with her third child and now toils from 9am to 5pm in a magic hour photo in a soul-crushing, coldly lit mall. There she sets up picture-perfect “Life Moments” for newborns, new couples, and others, happily marking some sort of milestone. This casts a disorienting effect on “Earth Mama” in an early scene where cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes’ camera launches in extreme close-up at a cooing baby’s face and pulls back, only to reveal it’s the heart of the fictional Moments of the photo shoot is . Gia has a closeness to happiness in that sense that she also gets involved in crafting, but her own life quietly spins as she tries to untangle its loosening threads.
Gia also fails to get through to the listless social worker who cares for her children and oversees the reunion requirements Gia must complete to get her back. Another, Miss Carmen (Erika Alexander), has kinder, keener eyes and ears for how much Gia loves her children but is uncomfortable with the future she can offer them. Carmen Gia brings the idea of an open adoption, where she can still participate in the life of her child even if it grows up in another family.
Nomore evokes Gia’s flickering ambivalence, and her performance is a marvel of naturalism. Leaf seems to have grasped the fundamental benefit of hiring a non-actor: a total lack of vanity or varnish. One of the reference points Leaf has mentioned for her film is Ken Loach, and Earth Mama has a similarly hypnotic docu-realistic power, placing non-actors in plausible situations laced with drama and even suspense.
In one particularly tense scene, Gia steals diapers from another mother’s stroller at a playground. DP Lipes, already known for his perceptiveness on similar kitchen-sink crawling-for-redemption dramas like Manchester by the Sea and the HBO miniseries I Know This Much Is True, follows Gia closely as she walks to her car reverses. the mother calls after her and somehow gets away with it.
This helps in part to set up the film’s other surreal, near-horror-genre-esque sequences, which initially don’t seem to resonate with the otherwise docudramatic tone of “Earth Mama”: Gia slowly hallucinates an umbilical cord out of her at times exploding pregnant body, sometimes an ultrasound becomes an image of menace, Lipes’ camera zooms in on the throbbing fetus and takes on terrifying dimensions on screen. But “Earth Mama” already existed in a state of heightened reality that slipped out of touch. Leaf uses the film’s Bay Area setting and deftly places moments of Gia throughout the film, often nude, adrift and empty in a redwood forest. The images are elliptical and suggest a kind of epochal new beginning or rebirth, with a dreamy, menacing soundscape by the musician Kelsey Lu.
“I don’t know her yet, but I love her,” Gia tells Carmen of her unborn baby as she prepares for open adoption and comes to terms with a futureless life for her children. In a short-worded performance, Sharon Duncan-Brewster plays Monica, the baby’s potential adoptive mother, who stands behind Carmen in a doctor’s office in an emotionally harrowing scene while Gia provides an unfortunate update on her decision. This is where the film kicks off into a more melodramatic level, and while it doesn’t quite stay stable in the final act, “Earth Mama” culminates in a heartbreaking final monologue, delivered by Nomore in a one-take, zoomed in from close-up, tears trickled down over her face. This is an immensely moving film.
Earth Mama premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. A24 will release the film at a later date.
Registration: Stay up to date on the latest movie and TV news! Sign up for our email newsletter here.
https://www.indiewire.com/2023/01/earth-mama-review-a24-savanah-leaf-1234800998/ ‘Earth Mama’ recap: A24’s Savanah Leaf drama is a triumph