Earth Mama: an intimate and piercing debut feature

Without preaching or editorialising, Savanah Leaf’s compassionate, poetic debut depicts a care system that’s stacked against poor American single mothers.

Earth Mama (2023)

“I don’t need a gold star to tell me I’m a good mom!” Gia (Tia Nomore) snaps at her case worker, showing her frustration as she struggles to meet the seemingly impossible court-mandated conditions to regain her two young children from foster care in San Francisco’s Bay Area. Heavily pregnant, and a recovering addict, Gia is the stubborn heart of writer/director Savanah Leaf’s intimate and piercing first feature, which builds on the real-life single mothers’ tales of The Heart Still Hums, the award-decorated 2020 documentary short Leaf co-directed with actress Taylor Russell.

Demonstrating an extraordinary lightness of touch, and a poetic visual sense, Leaf nudges Gia’s story from social issue drama into a compassionate character study, one where Gia is quietly but defiantly trying to retain some control over her life, in a system that persists in treating her not as a person, but as a problem to be solved.

Leaf quickly embeds us in Gia’s long days working at a photo portrait shop, stage-managing other happier families’ celebratory photos, in bleak contrast to her weekly supervised hour with a clinging son and angry daughter. A watchful drama, which scrupulously avoids melodrama or sentimentality, the film swerves the traditional broke-single-mother tropes, like the you-go-girl empowerment of TV’s Maid (2021), or the wild acting-out of Loach’s Ladybird, Ladybird (1994). Instead, the camera sticks second-skin close to the wary, life-swiped Gia, as she’s faced with a mounting wall of money problems and chilly official refusals.

Nomore, a rapper in her first acting role (she’s one of several fine non-actors here, including the Florida rapper Doechii as garrulous friend Trina) gives a subtle, sullen, and commendably understated performance that’s one of the film’s chief joys. She creates a believably tetchy low-key realism in Gia’s guarded friendships, and a yearning stillness in the film’s interludes of solitary disassociation, where the sheer pain of living makes Gia repeatedly dream of herself naked and peacefully pregnant, in the towering California redwood forest that is her mental refuge.

Doechii and Tia Nomore as Trina and Gia in Earth Mama (2023)

Despite the naturalistic playing and the urban setting, DOP Jody Lee Lipes’s 16mm camerawork gives the film an expressionistic look at times, which combines with the tough story material for a feel that’s simultaneously gauzy and gritty. His radical and frequent use of close-ups forces our gaze onto Nomore’s face, to read her closed-down but pained reactions to official snubs, the humiliation of supervised pee tests, and the longing that flares when her son calls, missing her at bedtime.

Somehow, despite its hazy aesthetic and gentle pace, the film is acute, even insistent about the precarity of Gia’s life, right down to her rapidly dwindling phone credit. We get glimpses of what a good mother she can be, immersed in her son’s story during a supervised visit, and gently encouraging her daughter’s halting reading. But threats pop up around her relentlessly, as she risks arrest stealing nappies she can’t afford to buy for her unborn baby from a playground buggy, and her sister deals drugs upstairs while Gia sleeps on the sofa.

Without editorialising, the film works hard to show how the care system is stacked against poor American single mothers, with its intense schedules of obligatory parenting classes preventing them from earning enough to provide the housing they need to regain custody of their children. Shreds of stories shared by the mothers in the parenting classes – expressed direct to camera – movingly illustrate how many families have been crushed and how many children left unmothered by several generations of this kind of separation and trauma.

Facing the horrific prospect of losing three children to foster care for good, Gia reluctantly investigates having the baby adopted, moving from her stubborn solitude to collecting active helpers like Erika Alexander’s shrewd social worker Miss Carmen, and affable would-be-girlfriend Mel. Without taking sides, the film doesn’t balk at showing Bible-quoting Trina’s fierce and principled opposition to this route, as part of a system that, as Trina states, robs Black women of “our culture, our homes, our freedoms, our God-given right to have our kids”.

Smartly increasing the emotional temperature in the last act, the director lets the film pick up momentum as Gia’s choices threaten to break her. But Earth Mama retains its nuanced, deeply felt character to the last, without ever dipping into sensationalism. The result is an astonishingly accomplished movie that delivers a bold new take on a tough social issue.

► Earth Mama screened in the First Feature Competition at the 2023 London Film Festival; it is scheduled for release in UK cinemas on 8 December.