Savanah Leaf’s feature film debut, Earth Mama, is an exquisitely rendered, quietly powerful portrait of a young mother trying to navigate a broken system and cruel world.
Set in the Bay Area, Earth Mama follows a young mother who has been pushed so far to the margins of society she is almost out of sight. Isolation is an everyday occurrence for her, with the surrounding community offering some glimmers of hope. Sadness, anger and frustration bubble at the surface as Gia (Tia Nomore) tries to fight for something that should be very simple: raising her own kids, and not just seeing them for one hour each week. Savanah Leaf navigates this harsh, unrelenting world with impressive nuance, and whilst the more experimental aspects of the film have varying effect, Earth Mama is ultimately one of the most devastating and poetic films of the year.
Based on the short film The Heart Still Hums, Earth Mama follows 24-year-old Gia, a recovering addict who has two young children in foster care and a third on the way soon. It’s the last mistake she’ll ever make, she says, whilst also vowing to remain single for the rest of her life. It’s telling that a woman this young has such defeatist views, reflective of the system that has slowly broken down her spirit. Not broken, however, is Gia’s maternal instinct. Through intimately observed visits with her children, we see how naturally motherhood comes to her.
More widely, Earth Mama is an intelligent depiction of Black motherhood. For the most part, men are noticeably absent, as are white people in general. Earth Mama is first and foremost a reflection on minorities and how they work against an unfair world. As one woman puts it early on, there is a collective power to be gained by each of these women by sharing their stories, but these stories are also their own, individual to each person and different for everyone. You can place a hand on their shoulder or look back at them, but you will never walk in their shoes.
This thoughtful treatment is a constant throughout Earth Mama. Despite an often minimalist script, Leaf’s film still says an awful lot. Importantly, it never turns into an affair of suffering, despite the difficult subject matter. Much of Earth Mama’s power comes from how organic it feels in its compositions. Jody Lee Lipes’ (The Good Nurse) wonderful cinematography captures Gia alone in surroundings, engulfed by the world; at other times, Lipes focusses on little details such as stickers on a window to hammer home the film’s urgent emotions.
Throughout Earth Mama, the camera is a graceful observer, dancing around scenes with a respectful air to allow events to breathe with the trueness of life. Exquisite sound design further amplifies the realism of Earth Mama, with silence or fading noise used as effectively as music or natural ambience. The final piece to this gorgeously rendered puzzle is Kelsey Lu’s original score, a perfect composition that has echoes of If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) in its gentle brass sections, but also its own unique, nature-influenced soundscape. Lu’s score is one of the best of the year.
As Gia is forced to contend with the possibility of open adoption for her third child, the emotional baggage of Earth Mama hits with a careful but forceful intensity. Nomore’s excellent performance builds into a crescendo of pain, preceded by intense torment and great acting range, with small flickers giving way to intense flashes of frustration. True to its natural flow, Earth Mama’s ending is as painfully realistic as you could imagine. Leaf avoids melodramatic happiness, instead opting for a much more suitable, but ultimately far more devastating conclusion that stays true to the cutting edge of our real world.
Earth Mama will be released in UK cinemas on December 8, 2023. In the US, the film is now available to watch on digital and on demand.