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‘Casa’ offers six great performances

Sayles constructs a moving tale of women trying to adopt
/ Source: The Associated Press

“Casa de los Babys” tackles big subjects gracefully; it’s ambitious and entirely accessible. Writer-director John Sayles (whose triumphs include “Lone Star” and “Sunshine State”) takes an egalitarian look at adopting children in Latin America. His sympathy, as well as his jaundiced eye, is applied equally to everything he sees.

He raises questions but doesn’t answer them; he leaves his characters’ fates hanging in the air. Even though the movie is set in an unnamed country, he creates a fully believable world.

The casa of the slangy Spanglish title is a hotel where six American women wait, sometimes for months, while bureaucrats decide whether to allow them to adopt babies from a nearby orphanage. That gives them plenty of time to bicker, gossip and absorb the culture — if they choose. Some of them don’t.

Are they angelic rescuers whose kindness compels them to welcome children with no hope into lives of love and privilege? Or are they committing a selfish act of cultural imperialism by taking babies from a foreign land they don’t care to understand? Sayles appreciates both viewpoints but refuses to choose between them.

Along the way, he takes the time to get to know all the women — played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, Daryl Hannah, Marcia Gay Harden, Susan Lynch, Mary Steenburgen and Lili Taylor. Thanks to Sayles’ economical filmmaking and some sharp, no-frills performances, each emerges as a fully thought-out character.

Every actress gets at least one scene to show her chops. Hannah underplays heroically as she reveals the secret of her reticent, fitness-obsessed character: She’s had three full-term pregnancies, but none of the children survived. Lynch has a stunning, heart-rending monologue about how much she’d enjoy spending a snowy day with her daughter. And Steenburgen attends an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting where it doesn’t matter that she doesn’t speak the same language as the rest of the participants.

If there’s a villain, it’s Nan (Harden), who condescendingly orders food prepared American-style, steals soap and shampoo from the hotel maids’ carts and plans to use corporal punishment to help her child overcome his or her cultural and genetic deficiencies. Frustrated at the slowness of the adoption process, she rants to her lawyer: “At this rate, the baby will be talking in full sentences before I get it! I don’t want to have to undo all that!”

But Sayles refuses to argue that she’s a poor candidate for adoption: He makes the point that plenty of kids think their mothers are crazy and turn out just fine.

Local flavor
Meanwhile, Sayles, who’s fluent in Spanish, also tells the stories of the locals: The conflicts of the hotel’s owner (Rita Moreno) with her loafing, leftist son; the frustrations of an unemployed man who dreams of escaping to Philadelphia; the poetic sadness of a maid at the hotel (Vanessa Martinez) who gave up her own daughter for adoption; and the seething anger of a pregnant 15-year-old whose mother insists adoption is the only choice. There’s true emotion at every turn.

Most poignant is the plight of three homeless boys who steal, beg for change and huff spray-paint fumes. Their fates suggest that whatever their flaws and ulterior motives, the adoptive parents are doing something good for the kids they take home with them.

That’s as close as Sayles comes to taking sides. He sees the prejudices and narrow-mindedness, as well as the essential goodness, in everyone. And that’s how “Casa de los Babys” achieves its substantial power.