Earth Mama Poetically Depicts the Conflict Between the Natural World and Our Capitalist Nation

Movies Reviews Savanah Leaf
Earth Mama Poetically Depicts the Conflict Between the Natural World and Our Capitalist Nation

“Nature versus nurture,” the phrase originally coined by Victorian-era British polymath Francis Galton, is easy enough to parse on its face. What determines our eventual personhood: The biological cards we’re dealt during gestation, or the myriad circumstances of our individual upbringing? This centuries-old theory is re-examined and contextualized within the landscape of 21st century American capitalism in Earth Mama, the feature debut from writer-director Savanah Leaf (also a former Olympic athlete who played volleyball for Great Britain during the 2012 summer games). Through the struggle of a pregnant 24-year-old Black single mother, Leaf posits that vulnerable populations in this country are all but barred from receiving the resources necessary for being a “suitable” parent. Simply put, capitalism doesn’t nourish. It depletes.

Gia (Oakland rapper Tia Nomore in a stunning screen debut) is doing just about everything she can to keep the fracturing facets of her life from breaking apart completely. She lives in California’s Bay Area during the mid-aughts, working minimum wage at a bygone mall storefront of the era: those portrait photography studios where soft-focus family photos were taken amid stock photo backgrounds of palm trees and American flags. Her two elementary-aged children are currently wards of the state in foster care, her relationship with them restricted to hourly supervised visits at a local office. Branded an “unfit mother” by the state due to her previous drug use and inadequate single-parent income (not to mention the deep-seated racism intrinsic to the system), she’s currently undergoing a scrutinizing evaluation process that would, ideally, reunite her family. Her anxiety about their reunification is exacerbated by the fact that she’s pregnant with a third child, due in a matter of weeks. Gia relies on her similarly ready-to-burst best friend Trina (fellow Bay Area rapper Doechii) and kindly neighbor Mel (Keta Price) whenever they offer assistance – assembling a crib, snagging take-out tacos – but otherwise realizes that the future happiness of her children rests solely on her shoulders. As a result of this pressure, she approaches her caseworker Miss Carmen (Erika Alexander) with a prospect she previously disregarded – that of putting her unborn child up for an open adoption.

In many ways, Earth Mama is a pointed reflection on Leaf’s own family, expanded from her 2020 short film The Heart Still Hums, which she co-directed with Bones and All actress Taylor Russell. Both films were made in response to Leaf’s younger sister entering the family through adoption when she tested positive for methamphetamines shortly after her mother gave birth. While The Heart Still Hums adopts a documentary approach to depict five women navigating poverty, addiction, homelessness and abuse while still trying to raise their children, Earth Mama hones in on what one woman’s plight signifies for the lack of resources for maligned mothers across the country (this viewpoint is slightly widened by short monologues from women attending Gia’s mandatory NA meetings, which bookend the film).

Either way, it’s clear the filmmaker was deeply touched by her brief interaction with her sister’s birth mother, and Earth Mama goes as far as reconstructing Leaf’s own family dynamic at the time of the adoption while rooting the film in the now-estranged birth mother’s perspective. There’s still an element of unshakable realism embedded in the films core, owed greatly to the largely non-professional Bay Area actors that form Gia’s immediate social circle and Nomore’s resonant performance. But Earth Mama is strongest when it indulges in Leaf’s sharp cinematic sensibility. The staggering environmental beauty of the region envelops Gia in stunning shots that portray budding motherhood as a natural wonder all its own; to regulate and restrict such a biologically innate process would seem as cruel as forbidding the natural life cycle of essential flora and fauna.

Yet this position also causes Earth Mama to falter, ever so lightly. To reduce the phenomenon of motherhood to a biological urge that needs satiating is plainly reductive. Birthing or gaining guardianship over a child does not necessarily provoke the so-called instincts of motherhood; not having children similarly doesn’t imply that an integral aspect of one’s womanhood failed to be fulfilled. Of course, examining one’s own personal (though observed) experience means that Leaf isn’t required to consider other perspectives. However, Leaf spends the majority of the film speculating upon the innermost turmoil of a character based on a woman she only momentarily encountered, and to assume she had some ingrained desire for additional children is simply too easy and idyllic of an approach for some to take entirely seriously, particularly when plenty of women don’t find the desire for motherhood to be inbred at all.

It is nonetheless vital for the film to presuppose that Gia’s conflict between keeping her child or putting them up for adoption is one born from precocity and scarcity. Indicting the cruelty of capitalism – which makes it virtually impossible for a single mother working full-time to support herself and her children – is the very point of Leaf’s thesis. She’s not only pondering the emotional standpoint of her sister’s biological mother in the weeks leading up to her birth, but also depicting exactly why the system in place has made happy endings for folks like Gia all but unobtainable. Poverty breeds instability, yet this country offers little in terms of support aside from weekly support groups and useless bureaucratic paperwork, across multiple government infrastructures. Given the proper funds, most mothers would eagerly provide the care and nourishment a child needs. We just happen to live in a country where working for a wage is not equated with survival.

There are certain threads that Earth Mama regretfully doesn’t investigate – namely, how does this country’s largely for-profit adoption system (and the oft-wealthy families it favors) contribute to this ongoing issue? – but what it achieves is nothing short of illuminating. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes does stunning work here, evoking a staggering emotional undercurrent from even Nomore’s most subdued of gazes. Cellist and composer Kelsey Liu’s string-heavy score is enchanting and at times intentionally discordant, communicating the fraying and frenzied tangle of anxiety pulsing just under Gia’s stony exterior. While womanhood does not inherently breed maternal instincts, it is imperative to interrogate why working-class women of color are on such unequal footing compared to their wealthy, white counterparts. Again, it would have been fascinating to see how Leaf unpacked her family’s own relative privilege within these systems. But this heartfelt elegy, born from an encounter in Leaf’s past, is a beautiful artistic exercise in its own right.

Director: Savanah Leaf
Writer: Savanah Leaf
Stars: Tia Nomore, Doechii, Erika Alexander, Keta Price, Dominic Fike, Bokeem Woodbine, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Kami Jones, Olivia Luccardi
Release Date: July 7, 2023

Natalia Keogan is Filmmaker Magazine’s web editor, and regularly contributes freelance film reviews here at Paste. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Knife Magazine, SlashFilm and Daily Grindhouse, among others. She lives in Queens with her large orange cat. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan

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