For the first hour or so, Rodrigo Garcia's drama of dysfunction features some of the most compellingly brittle behaviour – and some of the best acting – since The Kids Are All Right.
Not coincidentally, Annette Bening occupies a central role that isn't so distant from the uptight lesbian mum she played in Kids. Here she's Karen, a physical therapist who's spiky and awkward with people – her ailing mother, for one, and a genial new colleague (Jimmy Smits) for another. It transpires that this unhappy spinster is haunted by the daughter she had as a 14-year-old and gave up instantly for adoption. In 37 years she has never stopped wondering what happened to her lost child. This turns out to be Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), a hard-as-nails lawyer whose ambition has supplanted the need for emotional connection. She enjoys cold-blooded, no-strings sex, be it with her boss (a sympathetic Samuel L Jackson) or the doughy next-door neighbour, and whenever she fears attachment beginning to stir she moves on to another job.
As long as it foregrounds this legacy of hurt and the way it has crippled these two women, the film maintains a terrific suspense – we really want to know if mother and daughter can be reunited. But the third strand of the story, involving an infertile wife, Lucy (Kerry Washington), who's desperate to adopt, is only adequate, and its implications steer the movie away from tough particularities to a more patterned, less authentic study in hidden connections. (Babel director Alejandro González Iñárritu is an executive producer, which tips the movie's hand a little.) The intricate drama of the first hour springs a leak, and schmaltz comes flooding through the hole. Still, cherish those early scenes of Bening as she squashes Smits' friendly overtures, and of Watts maliciously toying with the randy neighbour. Seldom have two damaged women been rendered with such soul-withering fierceness.