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‘Earth Mama’ Review: A Mother Dreams Inside a Brutal System

In Savanah Leaf’s moving, intimate feature debut, a pregnant woman tries to regain custody of her two children in foster care.

There are moments in “Earth Mama,” a drama about motherhood at its most fragile, when the movie’s quiet intensity seems to settle in your chest, as if a heavy stone had been placed over your heart. Written and directed by Savanah Leaf — this is her feature debut — the film is intimate, modestly scaled and often so outwardly unassuming that you might not at first notice its artistry. It also features one of the most expressive scenes that I’ve seen all year, one that reveals a world of heartache with a single camera movement.

Leaf eases you into the movie, which centers on Gia (a lovely Tia Nomore), a pregnant single mother in recovery with two kids in foster care. In tight, precise scenes, Leaf sketches in Gia’s life, its uncertain horizons and crushing limitations. Gia lives in the Bay Area, where she shares an apartment with her sister, an elusive figure in her life, and works in a mall portrait studio. Mostly, Gia struggles to get her kids back, a time-consuming process that involves a reunification program in which she’s constantly monitored. She has check-ins with a case worker and takes classes with other mothers; at one point, she pees in a cup.

The story tracks Gia as she works, attends the program, visits her kids (brief, aching interludes) and simply navigates a life whose precarity — her card is declined at a store, her phone is running out of minutes — imbues every day with a steady undercurrent of tension. Gia is doing everything right; she’s following the rules and staying clean. Yet she can’t get ahead. The program’s demands mean that she can’t work more hours, but because she can’t work more, she’s behind in child-support payments, which in turn earns her a scolding from her case worker. If the system seems rigged for Gia to fail, it’s because, Leaf suggests, it is.That might sound bleak, but while the film provides an emotional workout (there will be tears), it never drags you down. Leaf’s delicate touch and refusal to punish or demonize any of her characters are crucial in this respect, as is her attention to beauty. (The cinematographer is Jody Lee Lipes.) The film’s drama emerges when Gia, with the help of a social worker, Miss Carmen (Erika Alexander, a strong, vital presence), meets a family of three for a potential open adoption. Played by Bokeem Woodbine, Kamaya Jones and a heart-rending Sharon Duncan-Brewster, the family is lovely, as is the diffuse light illuminating their anxious faces. (The very fine cast also includes Doechii and Keta Price.)

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Leaf based “Earth Mama” on “The Heart Still Hums” (2020), a short documentary about mothers and children that she made with the actress Taylor Russell. For the new film, Leaf has deftly balanced expressionism with impressionism, an approach that allows her to convey Gia’s inner life and the world pressing in on her. From the start, you see and hear what this often reserved, watchful woman does, the attentiveness with which she listens to other women in the program — many played by nonprofessionals telling their stories — who share hurt that she can’t or won’t. Leaf also makes you acutely sensitive to Gia’s physicality, her waddle and sweat, and how her huge jutting belly dominates her otherwise tiny body.

How Gia’s pregnancy defines her present, and how it promises to shape her future, gives the story momentum and feeling. Gia wants the baby but is fixated on reclaiming her son and daughter. She’s only allowed to see them infrequently during short, supervised visits in an institutional room made bleaker by its toys and little chairs. The first visit takes place early in the film, and at that point you don’t know how many kids Gia has. She greets a boy, and as they talk the camera drifts right, a movement that’s so discreet you scarcely notice it until it stops on a girl, who’s now in the foreground of the shot, her head down and her back to Gia.

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