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‘Mother of George’ is a waking dream

Despite what you may have read elsewhere, "Mother of George" — which opens today at the Magic Lantern Theater — is an intriguing exercise in visual storytelling. That, at least, is the point I tried to make in the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

In the early 1970s, in film courses he taught at the University of California, San Diego, the critic Manny Farber tended to stress form over function. An acclaimed artist, Farber came to film criticism with a painterly eye, and he always seemed more interested in a film’s look than in its storyline. It was one reason, anyway, why his teaching assistants showed us films out of order. They’d screen something by Godard, say, beginning in the middle, then returning to the start, sometimes never even getting to the end.

Farber was, after all, the man who once wrote that “One of the fine moments in 1940s film is no longer than a blink: Bogart, as he crosses the street from one bookstore to another, looks up at a sign.” What was Bogart’s character doing at that moment? What did his actions have to do with the rest of the film? Farber gives us no answers.

I kept that lesson in mind when I sat through a screening of “Mother of George,” a movie directed by Nigerian filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu from an original screenplay by American playwright Darci Picoult.

On the surface, Dosunmu’s film feels like any number of mainstream melodramas. Ayo and Adenike are a newly married couple, content living amid their Nigerian-émigré community in Brooklyn, New York. Ayo runs a restaurant – under the close eye of his mother – where, true to family values, he employs his younger brother. But the couple’s happiness becomes strained when, after 18 months, they still haven’t produced the son that the community – and especially Ayo’s mother – expects.

Blame falls, of course, on Adenike. And though a traditional woman in many respects, Adenike resents the notion that women are always at fault. Yes, she drinks the special tea her mother-in-law fixes for her, and she even endures a ceremony that involves spitting and what looks to be the casting of spells. But she wants to consult a fertility specialist to see exactly what the problem is. Ayo, though, for his own reasons – he cites the costs, but it could be a matter of male pride – refuses.

Then Ayo’s mother-in-law comes up with a solution that horrifies Adenike. Fearful of losing her husband to another woman, she seriously considers it. And the effects of her decision – which I won’t reveal – propel the film through its final half.

In an ordinary filmmaker’s hands, “Mother of George” might play like a soap opera, with the characters exhibiting the exaggerated emotions that less inventive filmmakers try to pass off as authentic human behavior. But director Dosunmu avoids such mainstream tendencies,  opting instead to emphasize the more subtle aspects of Picoult’s story and depending heavily on the talents of cinematographer Bradford Young (whose award-winning work brightened the thematically dark film “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”).

Dosunmu, then, makes his film into a kind of waking dream, one populated by rich colors, shots set off-frame, moments of slow-motion and imaginative use of focus – all buoyed by just the right touch of music and the acting of Isaach de Bankolé as Ayo and Danai Gurira as Adenike. All this together, blended with Picoult’s script, makes “Mother of George” into a fascinating example of pure cinema. One that even Manny Farber might’ve approved of.