The experience of motherhood is widely romanticised in the Western world. It does not take into account that bearing and raising a child can be a difficult and even traumatic experience. Sleepless nights, insecurity, anger and despair sometimes prevail. This is particularly true if you are a single mother. And this exceptionally evident if you are just 14 years of age, and yourself the daughter of a very young mother. Such is the case of Carla (Carla Quílez), an energetic and vaguely rebellious adolescent living in an institution in the outskirts of Barcelona.
The film opens during a therapy session. Various young mothers describe their difficult motherhood experience. An attentive Carla listens to them. She looks so young that you would easily mistake her for for a child. Except that she is a pregnant from a “good friend” called Ifrain. He is of around the same age, and the child was conceived through consensual sexual interaction. The prospects of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood are daunting. Her mother callously warns her that the pain of giving birth is the biggest one that has ever existed. At first, Carla displays resilience and determination. She does not wish to give up her unborn baby.
Her commitment to motherhood changes once the baby is born. Ifrain (she names the baby after the father) cries a lot, as babies do. Carla cannot come to terms with the fact that the infant will not calm down on her arms. One of the mothers tells her to calm down because the baby can sense her nervousness. Such advice triggers precisely the opposite reaction: Carla becomes extremely angry. This is one of the film’s funniest and also one of the film’s most moving sequences, when the magnificent contradictions of motherhood are candidly exposed. Carla starts to believe that the baby doesn’t love her. She breastfeeds him, bathes him, sings for him and he won’t stop crying. So she becomes overridden with guilt.
The young Quilez is outstanding in the skin of the troubled young mother, and she could easily win the Best Leading Performance Award at this year’s San Sebastian Film Festival. She incorporates the perfect balance of puerile adolescence and premature adulthood. She is resilient and confident with her make-up on, hanging out at local bars and discos. And she becomes a vulnerable child when calls for mommy.
While teeming with honesty, Palomero’s second feature is not without flaws. There are a few plot holes. The director, who also wrote the film script, fails to investigate the psychology of the other young mothers. I could never understand how the institution works and why we barely see the children from the other single mothers. Plus, it isn’t clear why Carla doesn’t live with her mother, since the two have a strong relationship and are intimately connected through the experience of early motherhood. The difference is that her mother did not have the support from her very own mother, who had tragically passed away shortly before she gave birth to Carla. It seems strange that she would place her own daughter in an institution.
The Aragonese filmmaker Pilar Palomero is no stranger to to the topic of girlhood/womanhood. Her debut feature Schoolgirls (2020) investigates the trials and tribulations of an 11-year-old girl grappling with repressive teachings of her convent school. Her sophomore feature, which draws from the real experiences of girls in a Catalonian shelter, has received a very warm welcome, and it will likely reach commercial success beyond Spanish soil.
Motherhood has just premiered at the 70th San Sebastian International Film Festival/ Donostia Zinemadia, when this piece was originally written. It also shows at the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.