Savanah Leaf’s Social Drama Nurtures Bleakness [Sundance]

Jan 29, 2023

Not only are Gia’s children in foster care, awaiting their mother’s journey through the system to end before they can be fully reunited, Gia (Tia Nomore) is also pregnant. Nearing her due date, the 24-year-old works to fulfill the cumbersome court-mandated requirements for reunification with her kids while she scrounges for hours at her portrait studio job. While the system pushes her on one side, the place where Gia lives isn’t much better: There, her sister sells drugs from their Bay Area home; outside their apartment, men catcall her; and every day, a landlord bangs on her door demanding rent. It’s a powerless situation that’s enough to make any person give up.    
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And yet, in Savanah Leaf’s feature directorial debut, “Earth Mama,” a fictional adaptation of “The Heart Still Hums,” the documentary short she co-directed with actress Taylor Russell, Gia desperately wants to uphold her agency. Her search for control, an achingly human aim, pushes her to the brink of losing everything in a journey that is thoughtfully calibrated by Nomore, but maybe too controlled by Leaf.   
In Nomore’s searching, emotive eyes swims distrust. It’s been over a year since the state took her young son and daughter from her due to, what we come to assume, is an addiction to methamphetamines. She disdainfully rolls her eyes when the group counselor Miss Carmen (Erika Alexander), asks Gia, like the other women, to share her story. But skepticism isn’t her only emotion. When customers arrive at the portrait studio to record their most cherished celebrations—a quinceanera, a graduation, and an expectant child—longing leaps from her mien. When she approaches Miss Carmen about the possibility of giving her baby up for adoption, hope springs forth too. Maybe this is a way she gives the child a better life without wholly letting go? Nomore plays with that possibility—the insecurity and guilt that resides in such a choice—to devastating ends.       
Leaf, unfortunately, fashions too cold of a world for Gia to inhabit. With few exceptions, Gia is given very few scenes where the worst of a system isn’t closing in on her. Even when a friend, Mel (Keta Price), or her guidance counselor tries to help her, the film still feels distant, which is partly by design because Gia pushes that same help away from her. That bleakness, the kind of discontent one feels from an apathetic system, however, requires a deft hand to pull off. The films of Italian auteur Vittorio De Sica, such as “Bicycles Thieves” and “Umberto D,” for instance, manage to weigh a resonating heartache from those afflicted by broken systems not merely by stamping said bleakness onto of every corner of their protagonist’s life. He allows a modicum of warmth to enter so we might dynamically feel the final crushing blow. 
Leaf struggles to land a similar vibrancy. In her hands, Gia’s story becomes too mannered, too anthropological. It’s telling that even in his brief scenes when Bokeem Woodbine enters in tandem with Sharon Duncan-Brewster as prospective adoptive parents, he brings a necessary burst of color to the proceedings. By virtue of how he carries his body, his easy delivery, he is the only actor who isn’t playing the observation of a person but a real breathing character. Gia, on the other hand, only feels like the outline of an idea, with her experience colored in by a second-hand source. This isn’t surprising considering Leaf hasn’t seen the real-life Gia, which inspired her documentary short, for over a decade. The disconnect between the person she remembers and how she exists outside of memory leaves an emotional void that not even time can fill. We are, therefore, not watching the story of Gia but the study of Gia.  
Still, those blemishes do not render “Earth Mama” dispensable. Visually and narratively, “Earth Mama” recalls ”Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.” and “Poetic Justice,” while its woozy jazz score reminds one of Bill Lee’s compositions for Spike Lee’s early films. These possible allusions are wrapped in an imperative story about the effects the inequities of a system can inflict upon the most vulnerable—from the single mothers to their children. And Leaf does fold in their stories, in a fourth-wall-breaking documentary style, with piercing depth. Not only does she include interviews with recovering women sharing their actual experiences, she intelligently uses Gia’s job setting up department store family portraits as the emotional site of all the system takes and what Gia wants to protect. One of the film’s best moments, in fact, occurs when the men who’ve been catcalling Gia outside her home pay to have their portrait taken. They offer their plaintive memories of being kids who were sent through the foster care apparatus, reminding us that a broken structure spares no one.      
“Earth Mama,” therefore, demands viewers witness. And what viewers see is the unmistakable beauty caught by the curious cinematography of Jody Lee Lipes (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood“), exemplified in the thoughtfully revealing pan during Gia’s first visitation with her kids. Audiences will observe the harrowing accounts shared by other mothers. And they will notice the verdant scenes of freedom that dance in Gia’s dreams. Sometimes Leaf asks us to see too much. But “Earth Mama” is grounded enough and empathetic enough to be worth the bleak toll it exacts. [B-] 
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