This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Directed by Savanah Leaf and starring Tia Nomore, Earth Mama bizarrely cheers for adoption without confronting its own social realism.
Earth Mama begins in the 2010s at the front of an Oakland group therapy session with an off-screen voice, later revealed to be Miss Carmen (Erika Alexander), the counselor, asking an onscreen pregnant woman, “Why should we care if you make it?” The woman delivers a powerful monologue. Throughout the film, women and men similarly share their experiences and reflections of navigating an indifferent world and an unfeeling bureaucracy when alone at their most vulnerable. The protagonist — former college basketball hopeful and now pregnant mall photographer assistant, Gia (Tia Nomore) — never comes to the front to share her story, but dutifully bides her time jumping through regulatory hoops, in hopes that CPS will return her son and daughter to her and allow her to keep her unborn baby. As her due date and court date approach, Savanah Leaf writes and directs a story that turns the screws on Gia so her money runs out, her responsibilities increase, and those who support her either lose interest or become judgmental. Will Gia make it?
Earth Mama is easy to root for. It features a black female director and protagonist and comes out of A24. There is a theory that all art falls into at least one of the following four categories: Eden, the Fall, Heaven, and Hell. Leaf emphasizes that Gia lives in a fallen world where mothers are not guaranteed the right to take care of their babies, and mothers pose an inherent threat to their children because of their addiction problems. People are so divorced from nature that they go to a mall to pay to stand in front of chintzy backdrops to commemorate their most sacred, pivotal turning points in life, such as expecting their first baby or taking the baby’s first photograph.
Gia is blissful and supportive, not sullen or resentful, as she assists these people with modest lives, but still richer in hope, community, and love than Gia. Her reactions suggest that she may be living vicariously through them because she is unable to celebrate similar milestones. Gia does settle for finding peace through watching nature documentaries on television or going to the ocean. She fantasizes about being in a forest or her belly button sprouting like a combination of an umbilical cord and a sapling. These silent moments suggest the depth of Gia’s soul to get viewers invested in her outcome.
“Imagine lowering yourself into the earth.”
Leaf is not afraid to make Gia unlikeable, as the film explores her human, but unproductive behavior in the face of stressful, dehumanizing situations. Gia wants to be with her kids and goes to great lengths to do so until she does not, which makes her seem recalcitrant at worst or an oblivious self-saboteur at best. She shouts at the CPS worker who appears to cut her visitation time short and appears as if she wants the kids to soothe her as much as they want her to soothe them — ring the potential for future parentification alarms.
Gia can be openly hostile and combative to the people making decisions about her and her children’s future. She does not comply with a home assessment because she lives with her sister, who engages in illicit activities. She steals a la Les Mis. All these actions and more are logical. Gia lashes out at people who judge her, is stealing to nest in preparation for the baby, and knows that if CPS saw her place, she would not even be in the running for reunification. It is a frustrating tug-of-war between preserving hope and surviving, as opposed to completely surrendering her autonomy and future possibilities.
“You two have a beautiful family.”
Leaf does a good job showing the ongoing countdown of Gia’s dwindling funds, which leads her to a crossroads: maybe she should consider open adoption, which has the benefit of maintaining her connection to her expected child and giving the child a chance at a better life Gia herself can’t provide. Her scenes with the prospective adopted family and Miss Carmen are the most peaceful moments that aren’t fantasies or take place in nature. Even though Earth Mama is supposed to be about whether Gia will make it, the narrative’s trajectory feels like a conspiracy to break the woman down and pile on unrelenting, realistic scenarios, so Gia has no choice but to give her baby up to this affable family.
The film’s sympathies switch from Gia to the prospective adopters, which is evident because Earth Mama begins to pull punches on the realism and fails to explore the psychological ramifications of adoption, the problematic adoption system, and the inherent trauma of separating a child from her birth mother. When it comes to Gia, Leaf is unremitting, but the family and Miss Carmen do not receive the same treatment. There is a single interrogation of Miss Carmen’s motives when Gia accuses her, “You get paid to sell kids.” Casting Alexander is a credible way to deflect such accusations because of her longevity as a reliable, engaging actor for decades, but within Leaf’s universe, it is a fair question, especially during a time when Tik Tok exists.
“When you coming home, mommy?”
Gia has little time to work and earn enough money because she must attend classes, meetings, court dates, and counseling. The system creates conditions that make it impossible to care for oneself, then steers her into a pipeline where she trusts an authority figure as a counselor, who also doubles as a liaison for potential adopters, which seems like a conflict of interest and a violation of the duty of care. Gia only gets medical care when she considers adoption, and Miss Carmen gets her in immediately. Why didn’t Miss Carmen help her earlier if she was so neutral and benevolent?
The prospective parents pay tons in fees, and the liaisons often make mothers feel guilty with veiled threats to repay expenses, so they won’t back out. In 2016, it became more publicized that the federal government would separate undocumented immigrants from their children, then put the children up for adoption. Slavery never ended. Roe v. Wade is no longer the law in the land so people can have more children to replenish the “domestic supply of infants.” Earth Mama halts the hard-hitting social realism at this point and depicts adoption as a joyful, charitable venture instead of a systematic money grab, which makes the film feel like pro-adoption propaganda.
The bottom line.
Earth Mama does not reflect reality because the fictional feature expands on Leaf’s short documentary, The Heart Still Hums (2021), which she co-directed and co-wrote with actor Taylor Russell. The black and white documentary, which Leaf describes as “emotional research” for this movie, begins by informing viewers that Leaf’s little sister, Corinna, is an adoptee from an open adoption, but never saw her birth mom again.
Of course Leaf relates to the family. While watching the film, it seems odd that the prospective parents’ older, athletic daughter, Amber (Kamaya Jones) spent so much time with Gia. Amber is Leaf’s surrogate. Leaf should have just made a movie about her own story instead of mining her sister’s history and an unknown woman for inspiration. It feels exploitative regardless of Leaf’s intentions. Hopefully, Corinna consented enthusiastically to her sister’s project.
Earth Mama is now playing in select theaters. Watch the trailer here.
EARTH MAMA - 6/10