Although many of the details are different, writer/director Savanah Leaf’s directorial feature debut portrait of Black motherhood, Earth Mama, feels like it’s cut from the same layered cloth as A.V. Rockwell’s A Thousand and One from earlier this year. The film centers on a young, pregnant single mother named Gia (the staggeringly strong newcomer Tia Nomore), who has a son and daughter in foster care already and is in real danger of losing her third child to the system if she doesn’t gather enough resources and attend the required court-mandated counseling classes. There’s no doubt Gia loves her children without fail (we see her visit with them under supervised conditions), but it’s clear that the struggle to give them the life they deserve may be out of her grasp, especially since drug addiction is a big part of the reason she doesn’t currently have custody of them.
Her pain, conflict and struggle is real and palpable, and nothing about Nomore’s performance seems exaggerated or anything less than authentic. Filmmaker Leaf’s approach is to simply allow us to follow Gia’s reality, which includes friends supporting her, giving her advice, and occasionally judging her decisions, especially when she entertains the idea of giving her soon-to-be newborn up for adoption to a nice couple (the husband is played by Bokeem Woodbine), rather than lose another child to foster care. When Gia experiences even glimpses of hope in her situation, we experience it with her, thanks to Leaf’s rich visual language, which makes us feel more like a participant in Gia’s life and not just an observer.
Set in the Bay Area, Earth Mama gives us a true sense of place and community, even those elements around Gia that aren’t always steering her in the right direction. Gia’s job at a portrait studio places her in direct proximity to families that seem to have their lives together, and it only makes it that much more difficult to hold onto her fleeting sense of humanity. The friends that criticize her for giving up her child don’t understand that this action is right in line with feeling protective of her children, and when she pushes back against their protests, she sometimes pushes literally, too.
A critical and audience favorite at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Earth Mama gives viewers an almost spiritual understanding of Gia, while also making it clear that we could never really understand who she is what she’s going through. It’s a defiant act of vulnerability, and a plea to be given the smallest of breaks in a life that seems heartlessly devoid of them. Add to that an uplifting score by Kelsey Lu, and the resulting work seems built of pure emotion that may overwhelm some, but the journey is wholly worth it.
The film begins playing Friday, exclusively at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
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