‘Earth Mama’: Gritty, eloquent portrait of a mother in crisis

(3 stars)

“Earth Mama” says a lot with very few words.

The feature debut of writer-director Savanah Leaf, based on “The Heart Still Hums,” a short film Leaf made with Taylor Russell in 2020, the film centers, often wordlessly, on Gia (Tia Nomore), a 24-year-old pregnant woman who works in a photo studio in an Oakland shopping mall. We watch as Gia watches expectant couples having their portraits taken. We watch as she attends meetings in an addiction program and is routinely drug-tested. And we watch as her credit card is declined when she tries to purchase rings for her two children (Ca’Ron Coleman and Amber Ramsey)— both of whom are in foster care and whom Gia is allowed to see only during supervised visits.

Like many in her situation, Gia finds herself trapped in an endless cycle of hardship: She’s missed child support payments but can’t get extra hours due to the mandatory classes she must take to be allowed to see her children. When she spots a Child Protective Services worker attempting to visit her home, Gia drives by without stopping, afraid to face the scrutiny.

Leaf intercuts these scenes with scenes of other young characters discussing the challenges of raising children, the perceived failure of their parents and being taken from their families as children, floating from one home to the next with little stability. There is fear on both sides of the equation — parent and child — with the children of foster care often growing up to see their own children taken from them.

This vicious cycle is shown to be ever-present, but Leaf doesn’t shove it in our faces. Scenes in which mothers describe their difficulties to members of a support group, without lashing out at their own parents, don’t break the film’s flow. Rather, these characters let it be known that they are barely treading water: shoplifting diapers, building a crib without help and shutting out friends who only wish them well.

For generations, people have expected Black mothers to fail. “God gives the toughest battles to his toughest children,” says Trina (Doechii), a friend of Gia. Those are encouraging words, but in Nomore’s soft, vulnerable performance, we see a woman who is beyond the encouragement of friends. (Nomore, like several others in the cast, is not a trained actor.) Trina tells Gia that she needs to step up and be a mother. Miss Carmen (Erika Alexander), the social worker who helps when Gia entertains the idea of putting her baby up for adoption, tells Gia that her life isn’t just about her anymore. Gia has a support system around her, but she finds it difficult to take advantage of it.

Gia would rather be single for the rest of her life, she tells Trina: At least then she’d know what to expect. (We never see the father of Gia’s unborn baby.) In “Earth Mama,” blame does not fall on any single person or entity. Gia is not a neglectful mother.

At the same time, the film does not present any solution. When Gia asks for an advance from her job so that she can buy baby clothes, savoring every moment with her two children, we know — along with the three of them — that it will be a long, difficult process before this family is whole again.

It’s a process that is all too familiar to Miss Carmen. On the one hand, Gia doesn’t want to give up her baby, but she knows that a more stable home could offer her child a chance to break the cycle.

In Leaf’s evenhanded telling, there are no perfect options — only a menu of imperfect ones. If Gia is forced to make agonizing choices, it’s because, as Miss Carmen the social worker puts it, in a devastating appraisal, the system was designed to hurt people like her.

R. At Alamo Drafthouse Cinema D.C. Bryant Street. Contains strong language, some drug use, nudity and sexual references. 97 minutes.

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