Earth Mama Review: A Melancholy Portrait of Resilience in the Face of Systemic Oppression

Despite Earth Mama’s bleak subject matter, it exudes a beatific warmth.

Earth Mama
Photo: A24

With Earth Mama, writer-director Savanah Leaf seems to be taking up James Baldwin’s evergreen adage that “anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” As the pregnant Gia (Tia Nomore) fights a foster care system on multiple fronts, Leaf throws us, head-first and in anxiety-inducing fashion, into the middle of an interlocking system of structural inequality seemingly designed to keep people trapped in cycles of hopelessness, in the process tearing families apart.

When we meet the single mother of two in Oakland’s backwater streets, Gia has already been stripped of most of her parental rights thanks to, we learn, a history of drug addiction. Though steadfast in her determination to prove to the courts that she’s a committed mother, Gia is hamstrung by the impossible and incompatible expectations that she somehow work enough to pay off child support, fit in enough time for court-mandated correctional courses, and maintain a rigid system of sobriety tests. At only an hour a week in a highly supervised setting, Gia further struggles to maintain a bond with her son and daughter, pushing her into the inevitable consideration that her soon-to-be third child might better be served if put up for adoption.

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Despite Earth Mama’s bleak subject matter, it exudes a beatific warmth, in large part because Leaf takes remarkable pains to dramatize a web of solidarity between a group of Black women alongside her depiction of the very system that disenfranchises them. Gia’s best friend, Trina (played by rapper Doechii in her debut role), herself pregnant, encourages her to open up in group therapy sessions while gently talking through life options on a fast food run. And Mel (Keta Price), a childhood friend who reappears in her life, steps in at one point when no one else can, helping her to build a crib and accompanying her to the hospital as a stand-in partner.

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But it’s Carmen (Erika Alexander) who becomes Gia’s closest ally. Since Carmen is employed by the system, Gia regards her with skepticism, but as Carmen ushers her through the labyrinthine adoption process, she ultimately provides her with a touchstone of sanity. None of these women are perfect, as each fails Gia in her own way, but they all care for her future prospects, and the actors make you feel how their characters’ actions are more than just a means of picking up the slack left by a system that fails to deliver the care that it promises, but also a form of resistance.

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Inspired by The Heart Still Hums, Leaf’s 2020 documentary with Taylor Russell, Earth Mama understands how people are products of their political and cultural environment. With Jody Lee Lipes’s camera placing us in close and almost uncomfortable proximity to Gia, swirling around her and steadily collapsing the space around her body, Leaf takes an almost experiential type of aesthetic route to key us to Gia’s prison-like situation. And through it all, Nomore skillfully lets us see the cracks in her character’s erstwhile ironclad demeanor. Pained and honest, the actress is as emotionally vulnerable as Earth Mama itself, never catering to sensationalism.

Then there’s the title of the film. As Gia sets out on a liberating journey of reconciliation, she struggles to find time to unwind, and to grow her talents. Little moments at the photography studio where she works clue us in to her potential as an artist, while nights spent watching a Planet Earth-like TV show remind us of her sensitivity and how it’s been eroded by the system. With Gia sinking further into a sandpit of predatory legality, she imagines herself becoming one with the trees. And in such moments, the significance of her place in the world and what it could be finds its most poignant and evocative expression in a vision of possibility: How freeing might it be to be supported by the Earth, our roots cultivated by the light of others?

Score: 
 Cast: Tia Nomore, Erika Alexander, Doeichii, Sharon Duncan Brewster, Dominic Fike, Bokeem Woodbine  Director: Savanah Leaf  Screenwriter: Savanah Leaf  Distributor: A24  Running Time: 100 min  Rating: R  Year: 2023

Greg Nussen

Greg Nussen is a Los Angeles-based critic and programmer, with words in Salon, Bright Lights Film Journal, Vague Visages, Knock-LA, and elsewhere.

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