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Kids in the House

'Casa de Los Babys' crawls through the adoption cry-room

By Traci Vogel

SOUTH AMERICA IS film's new Africa--a place of wide scope, wowing landscapes and the alienation of white people. In his newest film, Casa de los Babys, John Sayles lingers over an unnamed but recognizably southern land's gold light, its cobblestoned provinciality and its poverty-stricken children looking for a solid home. Six American women want to offer these homes, but the unnamed country's law requires them to act like residents for a couple of months--in effect, they have to adopt the country before they can adopt its children--so they shack up at a local hotel known as Casa de los Babys while they wait.

Sayles plops his camera down among them, following their interactions and their eccentricities. Each gets her own screen time: Skipper (Daryl Hannah) substitutes exercise for introspection; Nan (Marcia Gay Harden) screams (literally) "type A"; Gayle (Mary Steenburgen) gazes into the eyes of Jesus; Leslie (Lili Taylor) is a big-city type who wants a kid without the mess of pregnancy; Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaal) possesses a perfect husband with a perfect job; and Eileen (Susan Lynch) evinces a sentimental desire for a child that is unapologetic.

Sayles, as usual, is equally unapologetic in his sympathetic portrayal of these wandering women; his camera never judges, and in fact the film is so void of tension that it feels almost plotless. Sayles' usual method of moviemaking casts him in the roles of writer, director and editor, but Casa de los Babys might have benefited from an outside eye. Sayles tries to whip up tension by contrasting the lives of the local street urchins, those children whom adoption skipped over, with the pampered lives of the Americans, but his efforts to point out both the randomness of the adoption process and its bureaucracy feel like languid observation--an observation that is privileged in itself--without the editorializing inherent in a plot or a single character's point of view.

As in his previous Latin American-inspired films, such as Men With Guns and Lone Star, Sayles makes good use of the sweltering subtropical atmosphere. The women sweat in soft focus. The climate turns up the heat on their musings about motherhood; the hotel where they wait becomes a psychological womb. Nan cracks the most dramatically, going so far as to offer bribes to get her baby first. In one beautifully written scene, Eileen converses with a Spanish-speaking woman about motherhood, and although neither speaks the other's language, the concept's universality shines through. "Women's issues" are no new territory for Sayles, who directed the talkie film Passion Fish (1992) and the lesbian drama Lianna in 1983. Casa de los Babys may not birth any new fans for John Sayles, but it will be sure to please those already among his fan base.

Casa de los Babys (R; 95 min.), directed and written by John Sayles, photographed by Maurizio Rubinstein and starring Daryl Hannah, Marcia Gay Harden and Lili Taylor, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose and the Guild in Menlo Park.

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From the October 2-8, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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