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A Sort of Family
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that A Sort of Family is a 2017 Argentinian feature that addresses the moral, economic, and political ramifications of adoption. Although the movie never specifically mentions it, the Argentinian ban on abortions, except in the cases of rape and risk to the mother's life, can be thought of as one reason an illicit market in babies has grown in that country. For that reason, some poor women are forced to give birth and give their babies up for adoption, an enterprise that has been monetized to benefit brokers. "Baby mills" house and care for such pregnant women. These sketchy institutions shake down those wealthy enough to pay high fees for babies. The focus here is on a childless woman who seems oblivious to the illegality of this process until the day of the birth, when she's told she cannot take the baby home unless she pays $10,000. A woman screams through childbirth. Authorities detain the adoptive parents over illegal paperwork. A woman loses her temper when things don't go her way. Adults smoke cigarettes.
What's the story?
A SORT OF FAMILY follows a desperate, emotionally damaged woman in her unhinged quest to adopt a child after her own pregnancy ended in a stillbirth. Slowly it unfolds that Malena (Barbara Lennie) has signed on to adopt a baby from Marcela (Yanina Avila), a poor Argentine woman with a brood of young children. Although it would seem that over a period of many months Malena has provided financial help and medical care to Marcela, Malena knows nothing of the mercenary nature of the adoption process. She's shocked to learn that after the baby is born, she can't take the baby unless she pays a final $10,000. For the first time, she realizes that the care facility enabling the adoption is an illegal "baby mill." Malena's husband (Claudio Tochachir) arrives on the scene with the money, and questionable paperwork is fabricated naming him the father and the birth mother as the mother, as if the child were the result of their illicit affair. Well into the long car ride back to Buenos Aires with their new baby, Malena and Mariano are stopped at a police checkpoint. They panic about their paperwork. The police take charge of the child. Having learned of Malena's distraught condition resulting from a recent pregnancy ending in stillbirth, a judge chooses not to press charges but prohibits Malena from adopting anywhere in his jurisdiction. The fate of Marcela's baby is sketchy, although someone from the baby mill announces that another family has already taken it. Malena's husband heads home, angry at Malena for wanting to adopt. But the film follows Malena into yet another facility filled with pregnant women and newborns. This time Malena just walks out with someone's baby and drives away. Later, she arrives at Marcela's hovel in the middle of nowhere and begs Marcela to take what we now learn is the baby Marcela gave birth to. The movie ends as the angry and reluctant Marcela feeds the baby.
Is it any good?
While in many ways this is smart and absorbing, its overall confusion makes it difficult to take in its well-meaning message. A Sort of Family is an obvious treatise on the moral and legal ramifications of adoption, but it falls down in its pacing, construction, clarity, and focus. The baby mill phenomenon will probably be familiar to Argentinian audiences, but Americans may need more information. And it sure feels as if the writer and director are raising another issue -- the unavailability of abortion in that country -- without mentioning it. Also ignored is the fact that Malena, morose, impatient, explosive, uncompromising, and depressive, is the last person anyone would want to turn a newborn over to. Adoptive parents normally must undergo rigorous screening in order to prevent people as unstable and prone to impulsive thoughtless acts as Malena from caring for children. Malena is an emotional mess and we don't know if it's because she had a stillborn child or because she's just an unstable person. The script also never addresses how anyone as educated (evidently) as Malena -- they keep calling her "Doctor" -- could walk into an adoption situation, having had months to learn about the operation during her wait for the baby's arrival, without figuring out that she's dealing with an illegal extortion scam. The movie makes its point that the poor are victims here, whether forced by abortion restrictions to have unwanted children or forced to give children up for monetary compensation in order to help women raise their other children. Marcela knows she must give up her child and is angry that she must. "Rich people control everything," she observes angrily.
In any case, although Lennie gives a great performance as the unhinged, depressive Malena, it's difficult to watch anyone, even a fictional character, be this out of control and self-destructive. So many questions are left unanswered. What are Argentinian laws on adoption? If Malena and Mariano had flown home with the baby instead of driving, would they have been able to keep the child? And the movie's many difficulties begin early. In the extremely slow and confusing 15 opening minutes, the director gives no indication as to what's going on. Why is Malena sitting in her car in the rain? Where is she driving to? What's on her mind? On the other hand, later, the director is obvious to the point of silliness. Locusts actually swarm Malena as she jumps into her car for safety. Her punishment for being privileged and unfit for motherhood is clearly meant to be biblical. And this is the one area where the audience can support the film's premise. Malena deserves such punishment, based on her presumptuous notion that she somehow knows what's best for Marcela's baby boy.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the series of events that would lead a woman to give birth to a baby and then give it up for adoption.
How does poverty enter into the issue of adoption?
Is it fair that it's easier for rich families to adopt than it is for poor families? Why or why not?
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