Earth Mama

Earth Mama is one of those special little movies that make you feel like you’re eavesdropping on somebody else’s life for a couple hours. Writer/director Savanah Leaf was once an Olympian on the British volleyball team. Now she’s a filmmaker who deserves a gold medal for this intimate portrait of a troubled woman making a hard choice. Aside from appreciating its fly-on-the-wall style, the story hit me on a personal level, which I’ll explain momentarily.

Rapper Tia Nomore makes an extraordinary acting debut as Gia, a woman living in Oakland, California. She barely earns a living wage working as a photographer’s assistant. Her car is a junker and her cell phone is running out of minutes. Worst, her two children are in foster care. She gets a one-hour supervised office visit with them every week. It’s not enough. Gia takes all the classes and jumps through most of the hoops required to get them back, yet never seems to achieve progress. She’s also pregnant for a third time, facing the likelihood that this child will be taken from her too.

A caseworker, Miss Carmen (Erika Alexander), tries to keep Gia on the right path. That includes helping her look into the idea of making an open adoption plan for her unborn baby. She meets with a prospective couple, Monica (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) and Paul (Bokeem Woodbine), to feel them out. They have a teenage daughter named Amber (Kamaya Jones) with whom she bonds. A penchant for making poor choices threatens to derail any positive plan Gia might try to devise, though.

Earth Mama oozes compassion for Gia. The film never judges her, even when her decision-making is at its worst. Instead, it encourages us to feel empathy for her. She is a product of a system that has caused generations of Black women in the inner cities to be in the exact same position she finds herself in. When educational and occupational opportunities are limited, people find themselves with minimal choices to get ahead. And so it goes with Gia, a fundamentally good woman with few viable ways to dig herself out of a financial hole. Nomore hits every emotional beat perfectly, adding to the impact. She creates a character we root for.

The movie’s depiction of open adoption – and everything surrounding it – is another thing Leaf gets right. As a parent who is part of an open adoption situation, I was impressed by the authenticity. Gia considers the idea out of love for her baby, not because she doesn’t want it. Monica and Paul are portrayed as caring people who are ready to love the infant if chosen, and they maintain a willingness to keep in contact with Gia for all their sakes. Technical details are accurate, from Gia browsing adoptive parent profiles in a book to the functions of the caseworker. Few films have addressed the topic. This one does in a credible manner.

With a naturalistic tone, evocative cinematography from Jody Lee Lipes, and a heartfelt turn from Tia Nomore, Earth Mama is a beautifully realized drama that’s filled with soul. Since it isn’t getting the hype of major studio pictures, you’ll probably have to seek it out. And you most definitely should. This is among 2023’s best arthouse releases.

out of four

Earth Mama is rated R for language, some drug use, nudity, and sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.