Almodóvar takes the switched at birth cliché and makes it weird. Bad weird.

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo | Feb. 10, 2022

Parallel Mothers
Studio 7
Opens Feb. 18
2 out of 5

For a filmmaker long considered a master, Pedro Almodóvar stumbles every so often, usually right after delivering a masterpiece. In 2011, he made the well-received Hitchcockian thriller The Skin I Live In, then came up with the god-awful I’m So Excited — a movie so loaded with stereotypes, it would’ve been shelved had it been directed by anyone else.

So it figures that the follow-up to the stirring, autobiographical Pain and Glory would be a letdown. Parallel Mothers is a sloppy, undercooked melodrama that wouldn’t be out of place on the Lifetime network (absent the Spanish Civil War subplot, which I’ll get to in a bit).

The parallel mothers of the title are Janis (Almodóvar’s muse Penélope Cruz) and Ana (newcomer Milena Smit). The former is a fortysomething fashion photographer for whom pregnancy is a welcome surprise. The latter is in her late teens, and for her the news couldn’t be worse. The two bond on their way to the delivery room and become fast friends.

Cut to a few months later. The father of Janis’ child points out the baby doesn’t look like either of them or their families (the baby barely has any distinguishable features, but sure). Janis, who has suspicions of her own, gets the kid’s DNA tested and bingo, like Maury would say, ‘She’s not your daughter!’

You know what’s coming next, but then Parallel Mothers makes a couple of unexpected turns. Not enough to make a good movie, but sufficient to keep you entertained, the way creeping on someone’s Facebook page is entertaining. Not a single character behaves in a recognizably human way, yet Almodóvar expects us to be wrapped up in the moral dilemma at the centre of the film.

There’s an element almost disconnected from the main plot that makes repeated appearances: Janis’ grandfather was executed by Franco’s fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War, and she doesn’t know where his body was buried. Her baby daddy is a forensic archaeologist who helps locate unmarked graves to give families peace of mind. I’m sure in Almodóvar’s mind the connection is clear (intergenerational trauma can shape people’s lives decades later). But for me, it felt like filler. The movie’s final image has more cheese than a plate of nachos supreme at Taco Bell.

Penélope Cruz prevents Parallel Mothers from being a train wreck, and she may get an Oscar nomination for her troubles. She makes Janis’ emotional journey somewhat believable, no matter how disjointed the plot becomes. Almodóvar veteran Rossy De Palma and Spanish cinema mainstay Aitana Sánchez-Gijón are on hand to provide some colour to an otherwise flat melodrama.

An indicator of how haphazardly this movie is put together is the number of brusque time jumps from sequence to sequence. I don’t believe in treating audiences like toddlers who can barely grasp the notion of a structured narrative, but Parallel Mothers just feels lazy, like Almodóvar couldn’t be bothered to come up with a transition.

A lesson for you, kids: just because you’re known to be prolific, you don’t need to make a movie every one or two years. Odds are if you rush one, it will be a clunker. Just ask Woody Allen.