Earth Mama challenges audiences to rethink the stigma they may direct at mothers, particularly single mothers like Gia (Tia Nomore) — a former addict who must fight to reclaim her two children who were put into foster care whilst also considering how to give her unborn baby the best life.
Directed by Savanah Leaf, the A24 film is a stark examination of the foster care and adoption system, and shows how difficult it can be for women like Gia to convince people she is a good mother and shouldn't be punished for her past addiction or because of her financial struggles.
Leaf tells Yahoo UK how she wanted to examine the "resilience", "persistence and strength of mothers" through the movie, which began as a personal project inspired by her own upbringing.
"Initially I was reflecting on my sister's birth mother and, when I was 16 years old, what it was like to meet her, and I was also thinking about all the mothers throughout my life; my own mother, thinking about my friends' mothers, thinking about older classmates, thinking about teammates," Leaf says. "All the characters are based on all of these women throughout my life, so that's where the personal comes in."
"For me it was a personal story and then it expanded into something so much more because I was meeting a lot of people that had been through similar experiences and, I think, throughout my whole life I've grown up around women and mothers, and my mum is a single mum and guided our family.
"I think I just really wanted to show the resilience and the persistence, and strength of mothers through extremely difficult circumstances."Savanah Leaf
Leaf, who was an Olympic volleyball player before turning to filmmaking, chooses to open her film with a powerful speech from a real mother who went through exactly what her character is experiencing over the course of the film. Someone who tells the people listening, both in the audience and in the film, that they can't walk in her shoes and shouldn't project their stigma onto her.
Reflecting on using this speech as a starting off point to Gia's journey, Leaf reflects: "The first scene in the film an incredible woman, Tiffany, challenges the audience in many ways to reflect on their own judgments, and she basically says you you can't walk in my shoes but you can walk beside me, and that is really powerful to me.
"That really struck a chord for me because I think, as an audience member, we hope to empathise but I think at the same time that empathy isn't always necessarily achievable, but we can walk with someone and we can support them and listen to them.
"And I think that was really powerful for me. and that's a challenge, that viewers, I hope, are able to strip away their judgement of Gia and see how much hardship she's going through."
What helped make Gia's story stand out for the director, though, was the way in which Nomore was willing to challenge herself and dig deep into her own experiences as a mother to inform the character.
"Tia is really willing to go there," Leaf says. "Tia was a new mom, she was training to become a Doula, she was still breastfeeding, so all these emotions were so on the surface.
"It was so ready to be shared and she wanted to be pushed, she was looking at me and saying 'I'm ready for this moment' and I think that is something that not everyone has within them, so it was very special."Savanah Leaf
The film doesn't shy away from examining difficult subjects such as the unfair treatment of single mothers, particularly women of colour, both by society and within government systems like foster care and adoption, which on the surface are designed to help but in reality can be anything but.
By doing this, Leaf is keen to provoke a conversation, to prompt the audience to see these systems in a different way and try and understand how, and why, they may not work.
"I know it's going to be different for every single person that watches this film, but I hope that as they leave the theatres it's allows them to speak with the people around them about the subject matter and it kind of invokes a lot of question asking," she says.
"And people being able to share their stories [they] were too afraid to share [with] them. I hope, I can only hope that conversations begin after this film is out there in the world."
Earth Mama is out in cinemas now.
Watch the trailer for Earth Mama: