House of the Rising Sons and Daughters

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Review of "Casa de los Babys", director John Sayles

Six assorted North American women united by a desire for motherhood rub shoulders at Casa de los Babys, a Central American adoption centre. Delayed by local laws from completing their transactions, the women banter their time away in bistro, beach and bedroom locations.

As ever, John Sayles eschews mainstream Hollywood formulas in favour of his own. He learned Spanish to write his novel Los Gusanos (1991), and a recurring element of this drama is familiarity - or not - with the language. There's no unflawed character to easily identify with, no camera pyrotechnics or special effects, and no neat ending. The script is paramount, so the casting of actors becomes crucial in the speaking and performing of it.

Like Woody Allen, Sayles can command the low cost participation of some top notch on-screen talent. Of the six women, Darryl Hannah still appears as other-worldly as she did in Blade Runner (1982), to dramatic effect as her back story emerges. Mary Steenburgen plays a surprisingly laissez-faire Southern Christian. There are many other great performances, not least from a bunch of street urchins who illustrate the begging, homeless lives that the adoptees will escape.

But the scene stealer is 72 year old Rita Moreno, almost 50 years after her debut in Singin' in the Rain, and best known as Anita in West Side Story. She plays SeƱora Munoz, proprietor of Casa de los Babys, mother of a stoned, overweight, good for nothing leftist son, and wife of an anti-imperialist who has fled to the US to live with a woman half his age. She carries off so much complex narration, with every eyelash and fingernail working overtime, that it is hard to realise she actually has very little screen time.

Sayles tries to say as much in any one of his films as a whole year of other US films. This time he may have stretched himself just a little too far. The themes of tourism as cultural imperialism, language, working life, femininity, childhood and the borders of each - echoing concerns in all his recent work - are so densely interwoven here that it is impossible to gather all the threads at one go. This is even with some breathing spaces provided by his usual musical partner Mason Daring and cinematographer Maurizio Rubinstein.

It is as if, in his drive to avoid Hollywood heroics, he himself as dominating auteur fulfils that function. Nevertheless, Sayles's bottom line remains a summit most other filmmakers should die for.