Published Jan 01, 2006John Sayles has always straddled the line between life in Hollywood (as an in-demand script doctor, his work has included uncredited rewrites on the likes of Armageddon) and life outside it. He has remained on the fringe by choice and by design: his small films cost relatively little; his reputation gets him amazing ensemble casts anxious for work; and a devout, albeit small, fan base keeps him in the movie-making business.
Casa De Los Babys is in many ways classic John Sayles. Like many of his films (The Secret of Roan Inish, Passion Fish, Limbo and last year’s Sunshine State all come to mind) geography is key to the unfolding drama. In Casa De Los Babys, five Americans and one Irish gal wait out the residency requirements in an unnamed Latin American country in order to adopt a newborn child. Bound together for a long period of time (at least two months), entwined by such an intimate and important common purpose, but sharing little else in common, these six women bitch, gossip, complain, share dreams and connect with each other over the course of a single day in their waiting game.
Sketching out their characters in advance, Sayles encouraged his stellar cast to live with their characters and with each other over a relatively relaxed shoot in Mexico, and the resulting ease of performance is evident. Nan (an award-worthy Marcia Gay Harden) is a desperate, complicated woman with some serious control issues. Skipper (Daryl Hannah) is a health-obsessed loner who’d rather run on the beach than titter with the others, thus opening herself up for ridicule and scorn. Leslie (Lili Taylor) is the least conventional, a single New Yorker whose compatriots suspect she’s adopting alone primarily for reasons of sexual orientation. Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhall) is the youngest but also the richest; her money shields her from an ego damaged by her inability to get pregnant. Gayle (Mary Steenburgen) has a storied but shrouded past; over the course of the film, only hints emerge — she’s a born again Christian and a recovering alcoholic. Eileen (Susan Lynch, who appeared in Sayles’ Inish) is a dirt poor Irish lass whose sense of isolation is only increased by cultural and economic divides.
Over the course of a single day, these six women find different ways of coping with their extended stay away from home, but Sayles is at least as interested in the background action at the titular hotel of babies. Rita Moreno plays Senora Munoz, the woman who runs the hotel and assists in finding the homeless babies on one side connect with the desperate mothers on the other. Underlying all of this is the sense of Western invasion inherent in such a process; as different hotel workers point out, no Western mother would let a Latin American family come and adopt her baby.
Like most Sayles films, Casa De Los Babys is heavy on character and a little thin on story, but by gathering seven fascinating performers to embody these characters, it’s always compelling viewing. Another small-scale success. (Alliance Atlantis)