Early on in "Earth Mama," a quietly shattering first feature from writer-director Savanah Leaf, we find ourselves in a room with a Black woman named Gia (Tia Nomore) as she spends time with her young son, Trey (Ca'Ron Coleman). It's a drab, anonymous-looking room, with bare walls and a few toys scattered perfunctorily about, but Leaf and her cinematographer, Jody Lee Lipes, use the space to tell a story in intimate, heartrending miniature.
The camera, never blinking, slowly pulls back to reveal Gia's daughter, Shaynah (Alexis Rivas), sitting by herself, clearly too upset to talk to or play with her mom (she was late, there was traffic). And in time, it moves back even farther to reveal another woman standing in the background, alerting us, if we didn't know already, that this isn't an unsupervised visit.
Gia is a single woman trying to regain custody of her two kids, who have been in foster care for some time. At present, she sees Shaynah and Trey for just one supervised hour a week; Gia spends the rest of her time working at a photo store and taking court-ordered classes meant to establish (or discredit) her fitness as a mother. Other details flicker briefly into the foreground: her history of drug use, the waning account balance on her phone card. Another quietly but insistently announces itself in scene after scene: Gia is pregnant with her third child, due to arrive in just a few weeks.
All of which casts Gia, in the estimation of her close but not always sympathetic friend Trina (Doechii), as the product and pawn of a deeply broken system — one that disproportionately affects Black mothers and children, sweeping them up in grim intergenerational cycles of separation, addiction and poverty. Leaf appreciates the basic truthfulness of this assessment without suggesting that it tells anything close to the full story or that it should be granted the final word.
Indeed, Trina's shorthand invocation of "the system" may say more about her fondness for speechifying than about Gia's specific circumstances. That becomes even clearer when Trina begins exhorting Gia with passages from the Book of Jeremiah, a well-meaning gesture that her friend accepts in polite but inscrutable silence. Gia doesn't say much, not even when she should, as when a teacher encourages her to participate in a class discussion. She prefers to watch and listen.
Leaf, it appears, prefers to do the same. A British-born former volleyball player and 2012 Olympic athlete-turned-director and photographer, she makes a strikingly assured feature debut here — one that plays like a longer, fictionalized elaboration of some of the stories she told her in her 2020 short documentary, "The Heart Still Hums" (co-directed with actor Taylor Russell).
For "Earth Mama," Leaf and Lipes shot on 16-millimeter film, imparting a suitably grainy, rough-hewn look to a story that unfolds mostly through quotidian rituals and stray details. One recurring bit follows the flow of customers through the photo store, where they pose for family portraits against colorful vacation-themed backdrops.
There's an obvious contrast between these cheesy-idyllic visions of family togetherness and Gia's struggle to be with her kids, but Leaf doesn't hammer the point home. Instead, she allows Gia's longing to just barely break the surface of her warmly smiling, unfailingly professional demeanor.
If the filmmaking feels poetic and subdued, it's the opposite of coy. Leaf is confident enough to let her images, as much as her written dialogue, do much of the narrative lifting. A glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, the sun shimmering on its steady surface, feels like a balm; a simple shot of a car backing out of a parking lot, carrying Shaynah and Trey back to their foster home, distills a whole world of yearning.
At key moments, the movie breaks with realism entirely, drawing us into its heroine's subconscious with surreal yet oddly becalmed flourishes. Gia dreams of a small stump of umbilical cord sprouting from her own navel; later, she wanders, pregnant and naked, through a shadowy forest glade, a place of darkly enveloping refuge.
Nomore, an Oakland, California-based rapper appearing on film for the first time, is a naturally expressive screen presence, as becomes especially clear during these wordless interludes. Gia's reserve never feels evasive or affected; it feels like a carapace, donned by someone who's been through a lot and knows better than to put her trust in people.
You see that instinctive wariness — but also a flicker of optimism, and perhaps of conviction — when Gia begins talking with a social worker, Miss Carmen (a terrific Erika Alexander), about the possibility of an open adoption for her soon-to-arrive baby. That ambivalence persists when Gia meets with a prospective couple (Sharon Duncan-Brewster and Bokeem Woodbine) and their teenage daughter (Kamaya Jones), in a sequence written, directed, acted and shot with galvanizing restraint, so palpable yet unforced in its compassion for everyone in the camera's view.
The fate of Gia's third child — and of her two older children, and the devastating reality that she might have to choose among them — brings "Earth Mama" to a powerful, dramatic boil and a natural point of closure. But it's to Leaf's credit that there's nothing simplistic, and certainly nothing proscriptive, about how that closure takes place.
At its simplest, this is a story about how Gia learns to trust again, to reject the myth of self-sufficiency. She learns anew just how closely bound she is to the other Black women around her: Miss Carmen, Trina, her friend Mel (a quietly unyielding Keta Price) and her classmates, some of whom relate their own affecting accounts of struggle and resilience.
These are ordinary stories, Leaf humbly suggests, even as she tells them with extraordinary depth of feeling.
MPA rating: R (for language, some drug use, nudity and sexual references)
Running time: 1:37
How to watch: In theaters