Learn the names Savanah Leaf, first-time feature filmmaker, and Tia Nomore, first-time feature actress, right now, because their debut film “Earth Mama” is a shimmering stunner. A former Olympic volleyball athlete, Leaf has a canny eye for locating the subversion and beauty within a welfare-system drama about a single mother fighting for her life and children. What sounds, on paper, like a challenging sit is actually a wondrous 97-minute feature, whose director and star are obviously poised for greatness.
Any film tackling the petty and punishing bureaucracies of the foster care system risks wading into melodrama or cliche, but “Earth Mama” largely avoids those rookie traps, and with an unpredictable and fiercely focused actress at its roots. Leaf searched far and wide for a Bay Area non-actor to embody Gia, a young Black mother whose son and daughter from an all-but-nonexistent father are in foster-care limbo while she recovers from drug addiction and has barely a dollar to her prepaid cell phone credits. Tia Nomore, frequently seen on the Bay Area freestyle battle-rap circuit, had been training to become a doula for Black families when she was cast, and her personal connection runs through the material.
That Gia has any hope while being trapped in an apparatus almost specifically designed to work against her and other Black single mothers like her is a miracle. She’s 37 weeks pregnant with her third child, and meanwhile toiling 9 to 5 in a Magic Hour photo inside a soul-crushing, coldly lit shopping mall. There, she sets up picture-perfect “life moments” for newborns, new couples, and others cheerily marking some kind of milestone. This casts a disorienting effect over “Earth Mama” in an early scene where cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes’ camera starts in extreme close-up on a cooing baby’s face, pulling backward, only to reveal it’s the centerpiece of the fictional moment of the photo shoot. Gia, in that sense, has proximity to happiness that she also participates in crafting, but her own life is quietly spinning out as she tries to ravel its loosening threads.
Gia’s also not getting through to the impassive social worker supervising her kids as well as overseeing the reunification requirements Gia has to fulfill in order to get them back. Though another, Miss Carmen (Erika Alexander), has kinder, keener eyes and ears for how Gia loves her kids but feels uneasy about what future she can provide them. Carmen thus introduces Gia to the idea of an open adoption, where she can still participate in her child’s life even as it’s being raised by another family.
Nomore conjures up Gia’s flickering ambivalence to the prospect, and her performance is a marvel of naturalism. Leaf seems to have understood the fundamental gain of hiring a non-actor: an utter lack of vanity or varnish. One of the reference points Leaf has mentioned for her movie is Ken Loach, and “Earth Mama” has a similarly hypnotic docu-realist power, situating non-actors in plausible situations spiked by drama and even suspense.
In one especially tense scene, Gia, staring down the barrel of a minimum wage job and little to offer her soon-to-be next of kin, steals diapers out of another mother’s stroller at a playground. DP Lipes, already established for his acute lensing of similarly kitchen-sink crawling-for-redemption dramas like “Manchester by the Sea” and HBO’s miniseries “I Know This Much Is True,” follows Gia closely as she races back to her car, the mother calling after her, and somehow gets away with it.
This, in part, helps set up the movie’s other almost-horror-genre-level sequences of surreality that don’t initially seem to jell with the otherwise docudrama tone of “Earth Mama”: Gia hallucinates slowly unspooling an umbilical cord out of her explodingly pregnant body at one point, and at another moment, an ultrasound becomes an image of menace, Lipes’ camera zooming in on the pulsating fetus taking on frightening dimension onscreen. But “Earth Mama” already existed in a state of heightened reality slipping out of touch. Taking advantage of the film’s Bay Area setting, Leaf neatly places moments of Gia, often naked, adrift and blank in a redwood forest throughout the movie. The images are elliptical, foreshadowing some kind of epochal rebeginning or rebirth, with a dreamy, menacing soundscape from musician Kelsey Lu.
“I don’t know them yet, but I love them,” Gia tells Carmen of her unborn baby as she readies for open adoption, resigned to a future-less life for her children. In a performance of few words, Sharon Duncan-Brewster plays Monica, the baby’s potential adoptive mother who, in one emotionally harrowing scene, stands behind Carmen in a doctor’s office as Gia delivers an unfortunate update on her decision. This is where the movie launches into a more melodramatic plane, and while it doesn’t entirely steady its footing in the final act, “Earth Mama” culminates in a gutting final monologue delivered in a one-take, zooming close-up by Nomore, tears falling down her face. This is a tremendously moving film.
“Earth Mama” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. A24 will release the film at a later date.