THE STORY – With two children in foster care, Gia, a pregnant single mother pitted against the system, fights to reclaim her family. In her close-knit Bay Area community, she works to make a life for herself and her kids.
THE CAST – Tia Nomore, Erika Alexander, Doechii, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Keta Price, Olivia Luccardi, Dominic Fike & Bokeem Woodbine
THE TEAM – Savanah Leaf (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 97 Minutes
Savannah Leaf’s debut feature “Earth Mama” begins with a challenge: An off-screen voice asks, “Why should we care if you make it?” The black woman standing center frame replies that she doesn’t care if they do. The only thing that matters is her, and no one else can honestly know what she’s been through enough to empathize with her fully. “The only one who can walk in these shoes is me,” she professes. When the off-screen voice pushes back, she begrudgingly agrees that others can offer help, and she may take it, but she remains closed off, sealed behind the wall she’s erected between herself and the world. “Earth Mama” sets out to answer the question of whether it is indeed possible to walk the proverbial mile in someone else’s shoes, whether film actually can create enough empathy to understand a person’s whole history and the decisions they make. In this case, the answer is a resounding yes, thanks mainly to the lead performance by Tia Nomore – the most astonishing debut performance cinema has seen in quite some time.
Gia (Nomore) is a very pregnant mother of two. Her son and daughter are in foster care, and she is only allowed to see them rarely, in supervised visits. She has been going through the process of getting her kids back, but she’s barely making enough money working part-time at a photo studio to make rent living with her drug-dealing sister, and if she gets a poorly-timed shift or gets stuck in Bay Area traffic, she misses time with her kids through no fault of her own. She has been attending court-mandated classes with her also-pregnant best friend Trina (Doechii), but she doesn’t want to open up in front of people, especially the social worker Miss Carmen (Erika Alexander), so she often doesn’t participate. Gia is overwhelmed, and Nomore’s face is constantly worried and weary. With her slumping shoulders and loose limbs, she looks about ready to collapse under the weight of everything at any moment.
But when she hears Miss Carmen mention adoptions, something changes. Maybe this is the answer she’s been looking for, something that will allow her to have the best of both worlds and care for all of her children in the best way she can. Pursuing an adoption means meeting the potential family, and Gia is wary of them. Sure, they seem nice, but how much can she trust them? How much can she trust herself? Is this what she really wants, and if it is, can she even bring herself to go through with it? Leaf and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes are fully keyed into what Nomore is doing, finding the moments when Gia is at her most conflicted and pushing in on her face so we can see all the mixed emotions going through her mind. It’s an incredibly open, present performance, almost like she isn’t acting at all but simply existing in front of the camera. It’s the kind of performance that you hope for but rarely see from first-time film actors, one that feels so natural that it gives the whole film an almost documentary-like feel because of how nakedly honest it is. Nomore is surrounded by a fantastic ensemble, each of whom feels like a vital part of Gia’s community.
This only adds to the film’s docu-drama feel, as Leaf paints a beautifully detailed picture of Gia’s community and how it shapes its young men and women. At one point, Leaf cedes the film to two young men who detail their experience in the foster care system to Gia, deepening our understanding of the situation from another perspective. Leaf constantly finds new ways to expand the audience’s empathy, and keeping the film as true to life as possible is a powerful tool in her arsenal. Somewhat less powerful are her stabs at magical realism, centered around the umbilical cord and how it represents a tree’s roots. While these moments are as beautifully shot and scored as the rest of the film, they never fully feel integrated into the film as a whole. The film’s nearly pastel color palette does lend it a somewhat dreamy quality, but without a more consistent presence, these specific moments of fantasy feel like they come from a different film entirely. That’s not enough to ruin what is otherwise a beautifully-captured ode to motherhood in all its messy glory. The system does not make it easy, partly because the choices one has to make as a mother aren’t easy. But with a strong support system, one that actually listens to you and what you need, it is possible to make it through. Thanks to Nomore’s powerfully sympathetic performance and Leaf’s tenderly empathetic construction, “Earth Mama” easily passes the challenge it sets out for itself at the beginning. Who cares if these women make it? If you see this film, then you will.