Savannah Leaf’s Mother Earth is a melancholic story transformed into a precious portrait by the director’s generous and nurturing eye. She digs into the familiar landscape of a Black mother facing an oppressive legal system and pulls from it the most unexpected and humanizing details. She observes them with a loving curiosity, and then asks viewers to do the same.
The opening scenes of Mother Earth Sketch out the life of 24-year-old Gia (an arresting Tia Nomore), who is pregnant with her third child while trying to regain custody of her first two. We see her at her job as a photographer’s assistant in those portrait studios in the mall that deal in passport photos and tropical vacation backgrounds. The sound of a shuttering camera soundtracks Gia’s gaze — she stares longingly at a couple posing with their newborn. In the next scene Gia’s debit card gets declined when she’s trying to purchase three mood rings. A call gets cut short as the automated messaging system of her phone tells her she’s running low on credit. The next moment, we find an overheated and frazzled Gia rushing to see her kids, who are, for now at least, wards of the state.
The Bottom Line
A delicate stunner.
In order for Gia to regain full custody of her children, she must prove to the state — her counselor, child protective officers, a judge — that she can be a mother according to their standards. Between her job, her weekly appointments to see her kids and her court-mandated classes, she barely has time to put a new crib together or get her home in order for random inspections. She can’t think clearly about next steps, or consider her own desires.
Leaf, who also wrote the screenplay for Mother Earth (which is inspired by her documentary with Taylor Russell, The Heart Still Hums), artfully layers her film. The facts about Gia’s life — her name, her past drug use, the lengths she will go to to provide for her kids — unfurl slowly. This approach encourages a reservation of judgment from viewers and allows Leaf to treat Gia’s life like the rich canvas it is.
Leaf paints Gia’s interior life delicately. In the tradition of other films dealing with the livelihoods of Black women, Leaf adds surreal layers to her narrative. Much like Nikyatu Jusu’s NannyAlice Diop’s Saint OmerMati Diop’s Atlantics and fellow Sundance entrant Raven Jackson’s All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, Leaf’s movie connects her protagonist’s inner world to the natural world and its ghostly atmosphere. Gia’s anxieties about the life she can provide for her soon-to-be newborn, her struggles with this pregnancy, and her fears about never getting her kids back are portrayed in stirring interludes of the young woman walking naked through a foggy California forest or watching her umbilical cord shriveled and turned into a branch.
Gia’s primary concern, and the central tension in Mother Earth, is the fate of her soon-to-be-born child. Fearing that the state will potentially take her third child, Gia enlists the women in her community for guidance. Miss Carmen (Erika Alexander), the counselor for one of her classes, introduces the idea of an open adoption to Gia, informing her that there is a reality where she can give her child a more stable life and still be in touch. But her closest friend, Trina (played by the rapper Doechii in her debut role), encourages Gia to keep the child against all odds. Trina’s religiosity and penchant for quoting scripture in response to Gia’s material concerns eventually create a schism in their friendship, pulling the two women apart.
Mother Earth is a quiet film, but it never once loosens its grip. Leaf’s feature operates on an intimate register, a level that speaks to its characters instead of about them. Part of that can be attributed to the camerawork by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, which never distances us from Gia. But credit must also go to the screenplay, which privileges the conversations Gia has with her extended community. These are spaces of ideological clashes and differing values: Trina’s unwavering Christianity rubs up against Gia’s lack of faith in religious institutions. Miss Carmen’s position as a salaried employee of the state jars with Gia’s mistrust in the very system that oppresses her. These contrasts are all critical to understanding the predicament this young mother faces.
Gia often feels alone, but Leaf’s film threads her into a lineage, a tradition of mothers who came before, mothers who are with her and mothers of the future. Mother Earth opens with an unknown voice asking a young Black woman about people’s investments in her journey. She says, quite plainly, that it doesn’t matter to her if anyone cares about her journey. It’s not until halfway through the film that we realize that scene is from Gia’s court-mandated class, where women who are recovering users divulge their fears, hopes and dreams. And it’s not until the end of Mother Earthwhen Gia has tried to do the right thing, has done the best with what she has, that we understand that Leaf, through her film, has modeled what caring looks like.
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