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The Independent Critic

Tia Nomore, Doechii, Erika Alexander, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Bokeem Woodine, Keta Price
Savanah Leaf
Rated R
97 Mins.

 Movie Review: Earth Mama 
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Gia (Tia Nomore) isn't the kind of person you look at straight in the face. 

You look away. You don't want to, but you do. You know it. I know it. She knows it. When we first meet her in writer/director Savanah Leaf's Earth Mama, there's nowhere else to look because if you look up you see that neck tattoo of hers and if you look down you see that nearly full-term belly that she carries around with a weaving together of hard-earned swagger, hard-lived vulnerability, and hard-edged determination. 

Gia is very pregnant, struggling to make her court-ordered visits with the two kids she already has who are in foster care, Shaynah (Alexis Rivas) and Trey (Ca'Ron Coleman). She's court-ordered into so many classes that she can barely maintain her part-time gig at the urban photography studio where she spends her days helping others portray something resembling the good life. 

Gia's is not the good life. 

Based upon a short film she made with Taylor Russell called The Heart Still Hums, Earth Mama is the feature directorial debut for this former Olympian turned filmmaker and picked up the Narrative Feature Audience Award at San Francisco International Film Festival and the Best Director - Narrative Film prize at Provincetown Film Fest. Picked up by indie distributor A24, Earth Mama is a poetic gut-punch of a film featuring a breakout performance from rapper turned actress Tia Nomore as the young woman we can't quite look at but also can never look away from. 

It's obvious in the earliest moments of Earth Mama that even when Gia's surrounded by people she's absolutely alone. She shares an apartment in the kind of neighborhood that you and I most likely can't even imagine living in. She has a fiercely protective sister, Trina (Doechii), and a counselor, Miss Carmen (Erika Alexander), who seems to care even if it also feels like there's always a bit of an agenda behind it. Gia's a pleaser and it's hard to please everyone when every individual seems to want something different. 

It would have been easy for Earth Mama to turn into a ragefest. The entire world that Gia lives in is frustrating as hell and Gia herself always feels as if there are things she's not saying and emotions that are always bubbling underneath the surface. She wants to make the right choices, but the right choices aren't crystal clear and even if she does it seems as if there's little chance her life's going to get much better. 

But there's hope or something like it. There's a shard of light in the darkness, a glimmer that she holds onto and that we hold onto for her. 

Gia is struggling to please a court system that only sees black-and white. She shows up late to visits with her kids, partly because she's immature and partly because the system has set her up to fail. So, she fails. Her kids? They're kids. Inside, Gia seems to struggle with the notion of a third child entering the equation. She's got both pride and a sense of responsibility, though she can't quite decide whether the responsible thing to do is keep fighting to keep all three kids or to consider an open adoption presented to her by Miss Carmen involving Paul (Bokeem Woodbine) and Monica (Sharon Duncan-Brewster). 

At its cinematic heart, Earth Mama is about that choice. 

There were times I didn't exactly like Earth Mama, though as I was thinking about it I realized that what I really didn't like was that there are people who have to live like this because they've got no other choice. Once you get caught in a downward spiral, it's hard to climb back up. Sometimes, it's just plain easier to freefall. 

Leaf's work here is remarkably confident with a rich, human vision that defies the usual stereotypes. Leaf has created a remarkable character here and makes us own up to the fact that if we were to meet her on the street or working on a local photography studio we'd probably look away and, yeah, we'd probably judge her. Then, Leaf works alongside the exceptional Nomore to make us realize what a mistake that would be. Gia isn't perfect, but she's perfectly remarkable. Nomore was reportedly just a year post-birth herself when she shot Earth Mama and was still breastfeeding. There's a physicality here that's remarkable to observe, both beautiful and aching. and the lensing by Jody Lee Lipes feels like urban poetry from the likes of Etheridge Knight or the more contemporary Donika Kelly. 

Doechii also impresses here as does Erika Alexander, the latter a personification of everything system that is good and bad and realistic. The ensemble itself can be a little hit-and-miss, though in a film with so much realism it all still manages to work just fine. 

Earth Mama isn't the kind of film that fills the multiplexes. Fortunately, with A24 it doesn't really have to fill the multiplexes to be loved and appreciated and to get the respect it deserves. Just showing up, really, is an act of revolution for this beautiful little film that celebrates Blackness, womanhood, survival, and complicated motherhood. 

In the beginning of Earth Mama, we're presented with a young woman we can barely look in the eyes. By the end of Earth Mama, we simply can't look away. 

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic