Earth Mama review – Savanah Leaf’s outstanding debut about single motherhood

<span>Photograph: Gabriel Saravia</span>
Photograph: Gabriel Saravia

A San Francisco Bay Area single mother with two children who have already been sucked into the foster-care system, Gia (a revelatory performance from Oakland rapper Tia Nomore) is pregnant with her third child. Heavily so. Her belly seems cumbersome and incongruous on her slight frame. Brief fantasy interludes that cut into the naturalistic, almost documentary-style observational approach of this impressive feature debut suggest that Gia is deeply conflicted by her pregnancy and by the umbilical emotional connection that she already feels with the baby.

It becomes clear that the unborn child in her belly is not the only weight that Gia carries. A hostile, punitive society seems designed to knock back poor Black women at every opportunity. Her weekly supervised meetings with her children are the happiest moments of her life – and the most painful. To regain custody, she must attend a rigorous schedule of drug rehabilitation classes and counselling sessions; she also has to pay child support. But to earn enough money, she needs more hours at work, something she can’t take on because of the time commitments of her state-mandated classes.

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It’s a supremely confident first feature from London-born, California-raised director Savanah Leaf, who won best debut director at the Bifas last week. Her storytelling is subtly understated but visually eloquent. Images, rather than words, are the currency in which Leaf trades, with particular emphasis on long, unbroken shots of Nomore’s endlessly expressive face as she wrestles with her impossible situation. It’s bleak at times, but there is a defiantly celebratory aspect to the film, which finds hope in the solidarity of Black women and dignity in Gia’s quiet stoicism.