BFI London Film Festival at MAC: Earth Mama is powerful portrait of single motherhood

Words by Jimmy Dougan (follow him on Letterboxd here) / Press images courtesy of A24

The gut-wrenching power of classic Italian neorealism lives on in Savanah Leaf’s Earth Mama, a quietly devastating portrait of a single mother fighting against uncaring bureaucracy to keep her family together.

It is a sad and slow film, but by pushing beyond straightforward realist trappings it ultimately conjures a gently radical relationship with the natural world and takes on a potent hopefulness that allows its protagonist – and us – to briefly graze the transcendental.

Leaf’s film follows Gia (Tia Nomore), a twenty-four-year-old black single mother in Oakland struggling to balance the increasingly desperate demands of her both ubiquitous and personal situation. She must work because she must pay child support, but also can’t work because she must attend classes and take courses on precisely the thing she’s not being allowed to do.

It’s in this premise that the film recalls classic neorealist works like Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Umberto D (1952) – one person struggling to meet the demands of an uncaring society.

The state is depicted as cold and harsh: when Gia rightly points out her predicament to a support worker, she’s painted as having an attitude. But from the opening shot of a black woman speaking directly to the camera, Leaf urges us to consider and interrogate the ways in which we see black women, and perhaps the subconscious ways we judge them before they’ve even begun speaking.

Indeed, the acts of, and differences between, looking and seeing form a vital component of Leaf’s vision of black motherhood. So much hangs unsaid in this film; so many vast silences. In them we realise how vital the act of articulation is in the defence of one’s principals, but how the harsh cruelties of systemic inequality sometimes mean that there simply are no words. In one extraordinary moment the sound gives way entirely, and we are left only with the image of what Gia really is – a frightened, overwhelmed young woman.

Miraculously, this is Nomore’s first professional acting credit. She is a rapper signed to San Francisco’s Text Me Records. Her work in Earth Mama is one of the finest performances of the year: the way she holds Gia’s stillness within her, sad yet never melodramatic, is wholly shattering. She looks so unfathomably tired.

Her face, shot in gorgeous 16mm film by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, is a suppressed force of nature. It’s an affect heightened by Leaf’s constant use of close-ups. Even when people are addressing her we focus intimately on Gia’s face and expressions, and see in her eyes the acceptance that the minute she raises her voice she becomes another stereotype.

Where the film flirts with the trappings of the transcendent – a filmmaking style coined by Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader to encompass the measured works of Robert Bresson, Yasujirō Ozu, and Carl Theodor Dreyer – is in the way it inextricably links Gia’s experience of motherhood with the natural world which lurks beyond the confines of Oakland.

When Gia relapses, we see her floor rendered as that of a forest. In another scene Gia’s two children read short stories written in care. When her son Trey (Ca’Ron Coleman) begins to speak, trees glimpsed through a window began to wave and sigh as if they are synchronised; for a moment it appears all creatures great and small are existing in perfect, steady harmony.

It’s one of many softly heart-rending moments in a slowly paced film that will certainly not be for everyone, but if you allow it to wash over you in the way it deserves to one that will stir your body and soul.

Earth Mama – official trailer

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