It is hard to recall a wedding sequence as lovingly photographed, gorgeously realized, and downright joyous as the one that opens Andrew Dosunmu’s “Mother of George.” It is the union of a Nigerian couple living in Brooklyn, Adenike (Danai Gurira) and Ayodele (Isaach De Bankolé), an event that has brought friends and family together for a celebration of life, love, and—without question—fertility. It is an event driven by hope. “Nothing will ruin you two,” Adenike is told. “You and your husband will not know suffering.” There is humor (the couple is told to always eat dinner together, at home: “Even if you have eaten…Come home to eat again”), stirring music, and dancing, as well as real, tangible pressure. As the night wears on, Ayodele’s sharp-tongued, authoritative mother, Ma Ayo (Bukky Ajayi), kindly gives Adenike the carrier she once used to carry her son on her back, urging her daughter-in-law to “carry my grandchild with it.”
The unborn, not-yet-conceived grandchild has a name: George. And throughout this emotionally complex, thrillingly vivid film, he is the impetus for longing, plotting, excitement, and heartbreak. The film that bears his name is a stunner, one of 2013’s finest dramas, and a breakthrough for its stars, Gurira ("The Walking Dead") and de Bankolé ("The Limits Of Control"), and especially for its director. (Indeed, Dosunmu has already signed onto a high-profile follow-up, a Fela Kuti biopic, replacing the formerly attached “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen, which should give some idea of the response to “Mother of George.”)
Eloquently written by Darci Picoult, this Sundance Film Festival entry is photographed with Oscar-worthy elegance by Bradford Young (“Pariah,” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”), a real rising star. He won a cinematography award at Sundance, and his striking, sensuous work is an undeniable highlight. You have never seen clothes shimmer in the breeze and colors fill the screen quite like this before. Young’s cinematography and Dosunmu’s direction contribute to a feeling not too dissimilar to that of another recent film centered around the importance of children and family to a close-knit community, Rama Burshtein’s “Fill the Void.” It is a sense that the audience is placed in the role of observer at all times, never fully connecting to the characters’ inner lives. While this does create a certain distance, it also drives home the feeling that community and blood is above the individual, and that tradition continues to dominate.
This is something Adenike learns early in her marriage. Ayodele runs a restaurant, employing his brother Biyi (Tony Okungbowa) and the stylish, opinionated Sade (Yaya Alafia), a friend and confidante to Adenike. It has been eighteen months since the wedding, and still, Adenike is not pregnant. Something is wrong, and she is unsure of what to do next. But there is hope, if she can talk her husband into seeing a doctor. During a long, unbroken scene, Adenike urges Ayodele to visit the doctor, and his response is unsurprisingly complex. He cannot afford it, he maintains, but clearly, there is more to it than that. As Adenike says at one point, “Why is it always the woman’s fault?” (Ayodele, however, is never presented as a villain. He is merely the product of a traditional world.)
Soon, Adenike’s mother-in-law proposes an idea, one that seems both absurd, and absurdly sensible. Once Adenike has made her decision, the film takes a sharp turn, and heads into moral territory than is not easy for her, or the viewer. What occurs is not necessarily surprising, but certainly fascinating, bringing issues of respect, intimacy, and honesty into the mix. Adenike, Ayodele, Biyi, and Sade are all tested, and the words of Ma Ayo take on new meaning: “A child belongs to all of us.” It all culminates in a satisfyingly open-ended conclusion.
“Mother of George” is the second film from Nigerian director Andrew Dosunmu, a music video director whose debut feature, “Restless City,” premiered at Sundance in 2011. In collaboration with Picoult and Young, he has brought to the screen the most visually arresting drama of 2013, and certainly one of the year’s best films. It is, in many ways, a film with a simple, easy to summarize story. But the resulting experience is not. From the acting—the film might not stand out amongst the fall-winter monsters, but Isaac de Bankolé and Danai Gurira each deserve to be in the Academy Awards discussion, while Tony Okungbowa, Yaya Alafia, and Bukky are fine in support—to the music (especially Strauss’s “Four Last Songs), it is remarkably full of life. “It was out of love,” Adenike says near film’s end, rationalizing her life-altering decision. The audience does not doubt that statement for a second, and perhaps that is “Mother of George” ’s greatest accomplishment. [A-]