Earth Mama

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A remarkable feature debut by Savanah Leaf, Earth Mama is the grim social drama that’s had a magic wand waved over it.

Not the story, though. That remains grim. Young single mum Gia has lost her children to social services. She is a recovering drug user and is heavily pregnant. She loves her kids and realises she has made a mess of things. So she is trying to do whatever it takes to get her life back on track. But the system seems gamed against young black single women like her. How can she take on more work and earn enough money to satisfy the authorities’ stipulation that she be financially OK if her “free time” is taken up with the drug-rehab and good-parenting courses they also stipulate?

This is the story of the young woman who cannot get an even break. We have all seen this sort of thing before. Savanah Leaf certainly has and has decided to approach from a different angle. This is a gentle film of incredibly intimacy, shot deliberately on 16mm film to give it a pastelly fuzz, with an ambient-jazz soundtrack that push things even further into softness, and with performances that are quiet, reserved (for the most part).

Leaf understands that the situation is powerful enough – Gia may not just lose her kids permanently but there is also talk of her new baby being taken off her and put into care. Leaf lets the facts of the case do the hard work while she works an emotional counterpoint which – paradoxically at first glance – heightens the drama.

At one point, in “can’t beat them so join them” fashion, Gia decides to put her unborn baby up for adoption, and she meets Monica (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) and Paul (Bokeem Woodbine), a sweet couple. High tension, surely? No, no, no. Or not superficially. The swan’s legs pound away beneath the surface while the bird up top glides along.

Gia has a supervised visit with her kids
Gia and her kids in a supervised visit

It’s a bold strategy and it completely works. Leaf has set out to cast a spell and has done it. You would not have seen it coming if you’d looked into her biography – a volleyball player who turned out for Team GB in the 2012 Olympics (she was born in London but mostly raised in the US), she then took a psychology degree before a volleyball injury forced her to re-assess her professional sports career. This re-assessment took her towards making movies.

More to the point is Leaf’s family background. Her mother adopted a baby when Leaf was 16 and she brings some of that experience to the film, especially in the scenes between potential-adopter Monica (hopeful but not daring to express it) and Gia (not entirely sure she’s doing the right thing).

Leaf cites Ken Loach and the Dardennes brother, Michael Haneke and Claire Denis among her favourite directors. You can see plenty of Loach and the Dardennes in Earth Mama. There’s perhaps a touch of Denis’s way of forging subliminal emotional connections in there too. As for Haneke, perhaps not so much, though maybe, remembering how he handled extreme emotion in Amour, Leaf might have borrowed that from him too.

All the performances in this film are remarkable, from the tiniest to the most substantial. Look, for instance at Miles, the guy on the front counter in the photo shop where Gia works. It’s a nothing role but Dominic Fike spins it into a character. He’s at the tiny end of the spectrum, whereas Tia Nomore is at the other end, playing Gia with a tough sensitivity all the more remarkable because it’s her first screen performance. She’s a rapper, apparently. To which the only response has to be: give up the day job!

Earth Mama – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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