As movie titles go, “Earth Mama” has a nice ring to it, though “Birth Mother” probably would have been a better fit for former Olympian turned filmmaker Savanah Leaf’s feature debut. Building on questions asked in her award-winning 2020 short “The Heart Still Hums” — an artful inquiry into the social challenges that made possible her sister’s adoption — the helmer turns an empathetic spotlight on the kind of woman society judges most harshly: a single Black mother on the brink of poverty who gives in her addictions while pregnant.
The system is clear in such cases. Drug use counts as child abuse when a fetus is involved, and automatic protections kick in to separate a newborn that tests positive for methamphetamines from its mama. That’s what happened to Leaf’s sister, Corinna. Ergo, you’d probably expect the director to approach the phenomenon from the adopted kid’s point of view. Instead, Leaf explores what this experience must feel like for the birth mother, imagining the many pressures that pregnancy puts on these women — not just the factors that might lead to a relapse, but the fight to win back their kids after Child Protective Services has deemed them unfit.
At 24, the lead character in “Earth Mama” (played by Oakland rapper Tia Nomore) already has a boy and a girl in foster care, with another on the way. Gia must feel at times like everything is stacked against her, like there’s no way the system will let her keep the child she’s carrying or win back custody of young Trey (Ca’Ron Coleman) and Shaynah (Alexis Rivas). As it is, she’s only allowed to see her kids for one hour per week. Her own parents and family are completely missing from the picture, and yet Gia is surrounded by other women — friends, counselors, social workers — who try to encourage and support her.
Maternal behavior isn’t limited to biology, nor is it assured from actual mothers, and “Earth Mama” offers a nuanced take on the proverbial notion that it takes a village to raise a child. Shooting on grainy, yet warmly lit 16mm stock, DP Jody Lee Lipes (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) avoids the clichés of most social realist dramas. At times, Gia’s situation recalls the Dardenne brothers’ wrenching “L’Enfant,” in which desperate parents sell their newborn on the streets, though Leaf — who is also a photographer and music video director with a clear aesthetic — rejects the intrusive pseudo-documentary approach, with its shaky handheld style, opting for intimacy instead.
Applying sensitivity rather than sentimentality, the film assumes a feminine form in a traditionally masculine medium: elliptical and observational, as opposed to being driven by plot and action. Most movies feature clear-cut heroes in search of solutions within a given timeframe, whereas “Earth Mama” aims to represent a situation that’s much broader than Gia, presenting an imperfect protagonist with no illusions of happily ever after. Leaf recognizes that whatever happens to this woman, the problem remains. Her portrait is intended to illuminate, and Nomore makes for a wonderful collaborator in this.
Not once does it feel like she’s acting. Where so many performers play to the camera, Nomore often seems to be resisting it, which creates a compelling tension between her and the audience. Here’s a case of a Black director representing a Black woman’s experience for what will likely be predominately white audiences (the film, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, will be distributed by A24), and there appear to be no compromises in making Gia more gracious or “likable.” She’s a defiant character who pushes back at the help she’s given, but in doing so, she challenges the status quo, as when pregnant friend Trina (Doeichii) says, “They try to take our culture … our homes … our freedom … our babies.”
Later, sensing that she can control the fate of her unborn daughter, Gia asks her social worker, Miss Carmen (Erika Alexander), about placing the child up for adoption. It’s not an easy decision, but Gia seems to recognize that she can set her baby on a path to avoid some of the pitfalls she faced in life. Still, it’s a delicate process, as Carmen introduces her to a hopeful Black family (Sharon Duncan-Brewster and Bokeem Woodbine) with a teenage daughter, Amber (Kamaya Jones). This girl could be a young Savanah Leaf, meeting the birth mother of her future sister.
But Gia can and will change her mind, making things turbulent for everyone, audiences included. It’s all too easy to erase the human being from the equation when so much attention is placed on the child. The film opens and closes with testimony from the other women in the classes Gia is obliged to attend, who challenge audiences on the other side of the camera to see things from their point of view. “It’s so hard to tell a child that you don’t know better yourself … that each day that goes by, you’re just wingin’ it,” says one. She could be speaking for all mothers, though “Earth Mama” reminds that each of their experiences is unique.