From afar, the plot of Casa de Los Babys sounds like a stodgy look at female independence and cultural differences. Six generally well-to-do American women check into a motel in South America, each awaiting their chance to take home an unwanted infant. This method of adoption is presented as a faster alternative to the lengthy process back in the states, but to these women, it still isn’t fast enough.
Such a storyline could have been easily mishandled and turned into one of those elitist ensemble socialite pieces where everyone wears fashionable clothes and bickers over Freud. Thankfully, the director behind Casa de Los Babys is John Sayles, a talented filmmaker who knows a great deal about independence; one who simply cares too much to let his characters lend empty jokes to a New York crowd of intelligentsia that “gets it.”
Sayles (Lone Star. Men with Guns) wrote, directed, and edited Casa, as he’s done with the majority of his work. Aside from the interwoven lives of the six women, Sayles devotes plot to the foreign community around them, treating local characters with fairness, not stereotypical condescension.
Known for filming on incredibly small budgets, Sayles also consistently recruits a solid cast, as is the case here. Actresses Daryl Hannah, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Steenburgen, Lili Taylor, Susan Lynch, and Maggie Gyllenhaal all invest themselves in the six central roles. The beauty witnessed onscreen arrives from how it survives without utilizing a number of standard storytelling techniques. There’s scant evidence of any three act structure or typical climatic conflict. Instead, Sayles layers each character with enough depth to keep the audience enticed, and, with the help of some excellent performances and good writing, he succeeds.
By halfway in, the audience feels like they’ve known each character for years, including the supporting players in Spanish-speaking roles, like a hotel owner, a few local homeless children, and an employed man with looming aspirations for the future.
And fortunately, especially for viewers who dislike pretension and hidden intentions in independent film, the picture never conducts itself like a politically charged drama. On screen the drama is developed naturally – given, sometimes to the point of exhaustion – resulting in several touching and immaculate scenes scattered throughout.
Before meeting at the motel, known as the Casa de Los Babys, the hopeful mothers-to-be were total strangers. The owner of Casa (West Side Story’s Rita Moreno) has connections within the ravaged city’s government and hospitals, ones that are never fully explained, but, for a price, she’s able to match a woman with a baby.
A few of the women have been cooped up in the motel for months, and suspicions over financial exploitation begin to arise. They miss their families and husbands, but for most of them, this is a last resort – one well worth the sacrifice. But, as with the owner’s shadiness, why these women opt for such an unorthodox (and illegal) method instead of griming and bearing it back home, raises hundreds of questions, of which Sayles never acknowledges or thinks to answer. Viewers unfamiliar with Sayles will find such ambiguities incredibly frustrating, but he’s purposely chosen to veer away from micro-politics in favor of fleshing out numerous character studies.
Casa de Los Babys is often sad and melancholy, but nevers holds back on a funny moment either. Without a doubt these people are living in the world presented, and the atmosphere is so realistic that it’s almost impossible to imagine a film crew standing on the other side of the camera. Credit Sayles with gutting it out yet again on his own, but even more, he deserves acclaim for casting the right actors and actresses to turn such hard material into an engrossing art film.
Shawn Wines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.