Gender roles are becoming increasingly fuzzy, even in Hollywood. As women go all out for traditionally male stuff (murderous rampages, aerial stunts, choosing careers over relationships) and men turn “feminine” (tender, loving, willing to share child-care and wash the dishes) there are still some themes that remain labeled “gender specific.” In “Casa de los babys,” director John Sayles gives it to us in one word: babies.
In an age when men in cinema are just as involved in marriage-building and parenting as their partners, Sayles basically says that when it comes to the issue of diapers and bottles, men are, well, extraneous. In “Casa” men aren’t even around, and from the very beginning, babies are treated as women’s business. The production notes show a photo of the director surrounded by his (almost) all-woman cast — “Casa de los babys” is just full of women.
There are the six central characters: American women about to adopt babies in an unspecified South American city, who find themselves thrown together in a hotel while waiting for the red tape to be cleared. Some of them have been waiting for two months, others for weeks. (In reality, the required length of stay differs from country to country: In Chile, it’s a minimum of two months while in Mexico, it’s two weeks.) All are jittery and eager to meet the new additions to their families and take them back home.
There’s also the iron-fisted proprietress of the hotel, whose one soft spot is her apathetic middle-aged son. And there’s the hotel maid, who’s single-handedly supporting her younger siblings while pining in her heart for the baby daughter she gave up for adoption.
Sayles, known as the grand-daddy of American indies cinema, has always turned up the stereotype detector on all his own screenplays, and “Casa” is no exception. With material like this, it may have been much easier to turn the whole package into a major socio-political treatise. Instead, he keeps the structure loose and refrains from painting any character in strong colors. And rather than dwell on the adoption issue as a typical North-South problem (the wealthy gringas in the impoverished southern town), Sayles steers clear of general statements while drawing our attention to the details. Like when one of the American women coolly tries to bribe the official in charge of adoptions into putting her first in line. Or, while the women fantasize on how they will bring up their babies, a band of street kids wander around, sleeping in cardboard boxes and sniffing aerosol cans.
Still, the way “Casa” flits from vignette to vignette, never lingering for very long on any individual woman, actually robs it of an intimate, personal tone that would have made the work truly memorable. Despite Sayles’ superb cast, comprising heavy-hitters such as Marcia Gay Harden, Lili Taylor, Daryl Hannah, Mary Steenbergen, Susan Lynch, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Rita Moreno (in her first Spanish-speaking role, as the hotel proprietress), they all seem sadly underused. Moreover, their desperation to have children (from another, poorer country) is never fully explained.
Skipper (Hannah) is a tightly strung physical therapist who maps out her days according to strenuous exercise programs — later, we learn that she’s lost three children to miscarriages. Eileen (Lynch) skips on meals so that she can extend her stay at the hotel, hiding the fact that her husband is unemployed and the whole adoption process is a financial drain. Nan (Gay Harden) is a habitual liar and kleptomaniac, but the facade she presents to the world is that of a strong, in-control woman with an adoring, capable husband.
And what of the husbands? They just don’t figure in the story, and there’s no way of knowing how the adoption will affect the marriages once the women collect their babies. A hint that things could get difficult is voiced by Jennifer (Gyllenhaal), is wed to a successful entrepreneur and is the group’s only twentysomething. She is tearful in her brief conversations with him on her cell phone, and others surmise that for Jennifer (who has endured a series of fertility treatments) the adoption is a last-ditch effort to patch up her marriage. “After all, children are the glue that keep a man and woman together” observes Nan in her smug way.
For me, the most wrenching scene turns out to be one of the most minor: A 15-year-old local girl is discovered to be pregnant and is ordered by her Catholic mother to bear the child then give it up for adoption. The girl reluctantly agrees, and then slips off to see the father, a boy she casually met at a party. She doesn’t tell him anything, just exchanges some small talk before he turns away to join his friends, and she whispers to his retreating back: “Goodbye.” Her face already has the look of a mother: a woman about to give life, and who has had a taste of what self-sacrifice is all about.