Parallel Mothers

Pedro Almodovar has gone back and forth between making bawdy comedies with a provocative streak and straight dramas. He does both equally well, which makes it exciting any time he has a new film out. His latest, Parallel Mothers, falls into the category of straight drama, and it's one of his best to date. This sensitive story about motherhood introduces some gasp-inducing twists on its way to a conclusion that leaves you choked up.

Penelope Cruz stars as Janis, a photographer who has a quickie affair with an anthropologist, Arturo (Isreal Elejalde), whom she has hired to disinter her great-great grandfather from an unmarked grave. She becomes pregnant from the fling, and the married Arturo makes it clear he doesn't intend to stick around. In the hospital, Janis shares a room with Ana (Elena Smit), a scared pregnant teen. They bond quickly, especially after giving birth on the same day.

Then something unexpected happens. Several months later, Arturo comes to see the child he fathered. He tells Janis that he doesn't think the baby is his. The complexion is off. She wonders if he's right. I'm not going to say what happens next. You can probably guess. And if I told you what happens after that, you'd probably think Parallel Mothers was a glorified Lifetime TV movie.

What Almodovar does here is miraculous. He takes what could have been a cheap, tawdry plot twist and makes it plausible by grounding it in emotion. Janis and Ana are reunited, and Janis has a secret. The movie dives into her moral dilemma, exploring the choices she makes and the reasons she makes them. That gets viewers asking what they would do in the same situation. There are no easy answers, which is part of what makes this story so inherently dramatic. What she does is technically wrong, yet you fully empathize with the decision to go that route.

Almodovar and Cruz have been an incredible team over the years, working together on Pain and Glory, All About My Mother, Volver, Broken Embraces, Live Flesh, and I'm So Excited! That's a heck of a list. Parallel Mothers is arguably the best of their collaborations. At the very least, it's just as good as any of them. The filmmaker has written a screenplay that gives his star a wide range of emotions to play, and she, in turn, delivers a nuanced performance that helps it achieve maximum impact. Even when Janis is holding things in, Cruz guarantees that we know exactly what she's feeling. And when her emotions are mixed or conflicting in some way, the actress breaks your heart. Elena Smit does excellent supporting work as Ana, effectively conveying a sense of being lost from having to grow up faster than she intended.

Parallel Mothers addresses the theme of maternal love, of how a woman and a baby can bond powerfully. It also deals with friendship and the way mothers relate to each other. You get a lot to chew on with this movie, whether you're a mom or not. At the center is Penelope Cruz, bringing to life this character who is stuck with a Sophie's choice-like decision and consequently has to weigh a lot of unpleasant options. She's superb in a film that thoroughly engages your heart and your mind.

out of four

Parallel Mothers is rated R for some sexuality. The running time is 2 hours and 3 minutes.