Published Sep 19, 2013On January 1, 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin had the Kremlin issue new legislation banning the adoption of Russian children by U.S. citizens, in addition to outlawing certain non-governmental organizations receiving funding from America. These specificities came after the bill had originally been drafted as a response to the U.S. Magnitsky Act, which barred entry to Russians that were accused of involvement in the anti-corruption lawyer's death.
It's one of the many limiting acts of regressive nationalism stemming from the Putin administration creating a greater divide—encroaching on the chilly climate of the Cold War era—between Russia and the Western world. In Sarah McCarthy's documentary, The Dark Matter of Love, wherein a Wisconsin-based family adopts three Russian children, it's a peripheral topic that is never discussed but considering that this was one of the last cases of legal adoption prior to the ban, the politics involved loom as omnipresent subtext.
McCarthy, having experience in making a compelling narrative from real life, frames this story with a natural lyricism and emotional progression. Initially, the Diaz family—mother Cheryl, father Claudio and 14-year-old daughter Cami—are enthusiastic about the premise of expanding their family, acknowledging the unknown component of the experience before gushing about the potential of adding 11-year-old Masha and 5-year-old twins, Marcel and Vadim, into the mix.
First person interviews break up the documented footage of the Diaz's traveling to Russia to meet these children, focusing primarily on the steely emotional guardedness of Masha in relation to a generic middle-American Judeo-Christian family. Amidst these introductory, character-defining sequences, Scientist Dr. Robert Marvin, a Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, analyzes the behaviour of each family member, bringing with him a history—all given context through archival footage—of animal and human experimentation on the nature of creature comfort bonding.
Initially, some of the insights about preliminary social behaviour, deconstructing body language and varying modes of handling conflict—Masha shuts down while the twin boys throw tantrums—gives some context to the awkward early stages of the adoption. Each member of the family, despite doing their best to remain optimistic, acknowledges the intense physical and emotional strain the introduction of three children into their lives is having. Cami reluctantly admits that her father's preoccupation with establishing a bond with his new children makes her feel like an outsider, while Cheryl admits that Masha's tendency to gravitate towards her husband gives her a sense of emotional unease.
Quickly, before any sort of negative spin can be put on this essentially uplifting tale of overcoming inner emotional barriers to embrace love, McCarthy shifts the focus to the many progressive moments occurring within the family. Though the Diaz's make the controversial decision to give these three children, all of whom are old enough to have established a firm identity, cutesy American names and thrust them into regular prayer (something that is glossed over), the focus is on Masha's tendency to retreat into herself when dealing with negative emotions.
As such, some of the situations, such as a school musical where a teacher tells Masha to feel the emotions of a Seussical the Musical song, feel extremely contrived, forcing a very specific trajectory of dramatic expression as the cure for all ails. It's even something that overtakes the family dynamic eventually, with the twin boys falling into the background, despite being fascinating characters on their own, saying things like, "You expect me to love you? You ass; I'm not a baby!" and making flippant remarks like, "I think my name should be Chocolate and his Coconut" when presented with the name "Cole," which one of them suggests isn't a name; it's a shot in the bum.
There also isn't a great deal of discussion about the issue of adoption, beyond a minor factoid about an adopted child's IQ going up 10 points after adapting to their new family. It's all a bit superficial and altogether twee but, considering the unspoken political backdrop, it makes complete sense.