For most of us, success in marriage depends entirely on the couple's own happiness. On how they satisfy and support each other.
Nigerian filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu's Mother of George introduces us to a world where marriage is a public contract, not a private bond, that must live up to the community's expectation.
Set in Brooklyn's tight-knit Nigerian community, Dosunmu's film is a moving anatomy (or autopsy) of a young marriage plunged into crisis when it fails to produce children.
Actor-playwright Danai Gurira (The Walking Dead) stars as Adenike, a recent emigre who is warmly welcomed into the community when she marries Ayodele (Ivorian star Isaach De Bankolé), a restaurateur whose family has established roots in New York.
Dosunmu opens the film with a gorgeous, richly textured traditional Nigerian wedding. As guests dance in their impossibly colorful traditional clothing, we're treated to a dynamic kaleidoscope of colors and sounds, all captured in a sequence of lovely, painterly shots. It's a perfect blend of style and substance.
But the marriage seems doomed from the start, when Ayodele's overbearing mother Ma Ayo Balogun (Bukky Ajayi) pulls Adenike aside to remind her that her duty in the marriage, indeed the very meaning of her existence, is to bear the family an heir.
When the couple fail to get pregnant, Adenike suggests they visit a fertility specialist, an idea that horrifies her husband. He wants to keep everything in the family.
His mother takes over and lays out Adenike's options: If she's barren, then she must give her man consent to conceive with another woman. If Ayodele is sterile, then his wife must take matters into her own hands.
Gurira, who is fearsome as zombie-killing machine Michonne in The Walking Dead, is equally fierce here, delivering a raw, emotional performance. She's matched note for note by De Bankolé, who is best known in America for his remarkable turns in Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.
Unfortunately, their effort is seriously undermined by Dosunmu's heavy-handed, self-conscious visual style.
A former fashion photographer and music video director, he seems more concerned with turning each shot into a museum-quality tableau than in employing style to serve the story.
After a while it's hard to take Dosunmu's barrage of off-center compositions (sometimes only the top of the characters' heads is visible), dialogue sequences that have the actor converse with empty space, and close-ups that reduce faces and objects to blobs of light.
Employing quasi-avant garde visual pyrotechniques for a wedding reception is one thing, but using it to capture an intimate family story is like trying to pin a butterfly with a sledgehammer.
Mother of George **1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Andrew Dosunmu. With Danai Gurira, Isaach De Bankolé, Bukky Ajayi, Anthony Okungbowa. In English and Yoruba with subtitles. Distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories.
Running time: 1 hour, 47 mins.
Parent's guide: R (adult themes, sexuality, language)
Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse