Credit: A24
by Travis DeShong Featured Film Horizon Line

Earth Mama — Savannah Leaf

July 13, 2023

Savanah Leaf’s debut Earth Mama treats the viewer to a tender, moving portrait of a complicated Black woman. Leaf establishes the stakes early on: Gia (Tia Nomore), a young, single, pregnant Black mother, interacts with her children during a supervised visit. An out-of-focus official lurks at the edge of the frame, and Gia’s faded, oversized striped shirt recalls prison garb. Her young daughter has grown distant and ignores her presence, while her young son has to be peeled from her arms once the official signals their scheduled time is up. Face taut, Gia implores the official to recognize her son’s deep attachment to her, evidence that she is worthy of being their legal guardian. But it’s clear it will take more than a warm moment in a controlled setting to reclaim her children from the foster care system. With another baby on the way — who she could lose as well — rehabilitating her image is the only way to ensure a permanent reunion.

Nomore, a first-time actor, is a knockout in the central role. A Bay Area rapper, certified doula, and mother herself, she brings a tempered balance of youth and wisdom to Gia, who is stoic and resourceful, while also clearly exhausted, fearful, and bitter over her circumstances. There’s a grace and burgeoning clarity that Gia gains as the story progresses, reflected in Nomore’s performance, which builds out a sense of vulnerability — beyond Gia’s hard exterior is revealed a deep well of pathos. In interviews, Nomore has claimed she has “a hard time considering [Gia] a performance because a lot of that shit was just very real.” This act of drawing from lived experience to inform her performance both grounds and authenticates the character, which is important, since Gia, in many ways, remains a cipher.

One can watch Earth Mama and come away thinking that Gia grows little, or even regresses, if they simply take her flat affect at face value. In many ways, Leaf’s film employs the techniques of slow cinema to root the viewer in Gia’s marginality and isolation, tracking her long walks, holding a shot as she stands alone, silhouetted and doubled over. A marked Black woman viewed as being only steps away from criminality or degeneracy, Gia withholds herself from expressing the true, full scope of her feeling. Her journey is an interior one, nearly invisible, perhaps because she personally has been all but disappeared by society. Gia, and by extension Earth Mama, roils with a silent but bracing power, and Nomore immerses herself in her character in much the same way Leaf immerses her protagonist in this beautiful rendering of an imperfect world.

Leaf depicts Gia’s Bay Area community as a dual world, both real and hyperreal, beautiful and desolate. Slow, smooth pans wash across the urban geography, engineering a woozy vibe. Scenes, typically naturally lit, possess a humbly vintage quality, and muted colors drain the visuals of any artificial Hollywood vitality. Instead, beauty is located in the geometry of compositions, the symmetry in blocking, and the eyes and faces that the camera bears a penchant for hugging tightly. Up close, these characters come away feeling larger-than-life, elevated into dignified symbols. Yet paradoxically, the more space they fill, the more confined they feel, left without room to breathe. Essential to understanding Earth Mama’s juxtapositions is a tracing of the representations of the world that could be relative to the world as it is. Scenes at Gia’s day job, where she works as a photo assistant, feature families posing against the studio’s garishly painted backdrops: baby blue sky and clouds, an arc of balloons connecting two columns, the brightness drenched in an almost fairy-tale innocence. Gia’s reality, however, is all open lots and cramped apartment interiors, chain link fences, sparse vegetation, Black men and women idling as time slowly marches on.

That sense of spiritual bleakness is the true villain of Earth Mama. Gia navigates the quasi-Kafkaesque labyrinth that is Child Protective Services, not entirely without support, but uninterested in fully embracing it. She routinely attends classes ostensibly geared toward her betterment, all of which are stuffed with orders and mantras with a flatness that belies their sanctimony. No amount of urging one’s better angels to prevail will overcome the deadening effects an oppressing environment will have on one’s soul. If Earth Mama has a thesis, it may be that the familiar places where we seek love and understanding do not always support our flourishing inner lives. Gia, trapped in her body and adrift in her mind, experiences her daily mundanity as a brutality. Despair has more than enough space to take root if she doesn’t remain vigilant.

Clocking in at 100 minutes, Earth Mama likely could accomplish what it sets out to do more successfully with a shorter runtime. The narrative’s looseness, while in some ways a point of strength, can stagnate matters when the film hits some meandering stretches. Its function as a polemic is also underbaked, a byproduct of keying in on its characters and stylistic flair rather than engaging meatier sociological matters. And while Nomore’s performance anchors the film, and co-stars Doechii and particularly Erika Alexander admirably hold their own opposite the lead, other performances at the margins of the cast are a bit lackluster by comparison. Still, these small flaws do little to compromise a work of such power and clarity of vision, and Earth Mama ultimately resonates as a work of uncommon rawness and realness.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 27