Frustrated Mothers-to-Be Flounder in Saylesian Purgatory


Almost all of John Sayles’s films could be titled Limbo insofar as they catalog lives in indefinite suspension and communities shaken out of sleepy, idyllic isolation. In Casa de los Babys, Sayles takes his fascination with purgatorial paralysis and multiplies it by six, telling the intersecting stories of a group of American women (Marcia Gay Harden, Lili Taylor, Daryl Hannah, Susan Lynch, Mary Steenburgen, and Maggie Gyllenhaal) stuck in an unnamed Lat-Am town, each awaiting governmental blessing of her adoption. Collectively, these women carve out a deep well of frustrated maternity, but individually, each seems curiously skin-deep—a zodiac of gringa grotesquerie that can be itemized (respectively) as bitchy, cynical, obsessive-compulsive, penny-pinching, Christian, and demure.

Blatantly schematic, Casa circulates its yanqui divas among a local supporting cast whose tourism-dependent, baby-exporting livelihoods waver in NAFTA-inflicted impotence. Sayles constructs his haves and have-nots with an overattentive eye for neat symmetries and spiritual concentricity, emphasizing randomness even as he indulges in flights of contrivance. The screenplay’s clutchy banter (interspersed with arias of teary confession) feels distinctly Oprah, but Sayles extracts unexpected life from his wooden setups. Gyllenhaal and Hannah effortlessly embody young womanhood cut short by infertility, but it’s Vanessa Martinez’s cleaning lady—and former mother—who truly startles, conveying with her unblinking eyes a bottomless sorrow transmuted by time and patience into a holy trance. No wonder her name is Asunción.