For most of its 95 minutes, "Casa de los Babys" is the John Sayles picture for people who always wished John Sayles pictures were a little bit better. Again trusting the power of the site-specific, socially conscious ensemble drama, the writer/ director this time eschews his biggest weakness -- wholesale sermonizing barely disguised as dialogue -- in favor of smoother, more natural writing that keeps his film within flirting room of greatness.
Sure, it's still a talky picture. "Casa" is configured as a series of conversations between childless women waiting to adopt the tykes of their dreams, and with the citizens of the unidentified Latin American country that is their ersatz baby factory. As the ladies fret and bicker over the status of their adoption cases, they unknowingly mount a group study of Yankee imperialism. Yet nobody steps out of character to spoon-feed us a long-winded spiel that's the thesis of the movie. Small jewels of pith suffice; whatever a character wouldn't conceivably say remains unsaid.
The women are gathered at a hotel, waiting for the governmental green light to spirit native children away to lives of (as one nurse puts it) "perfect teeth and a huge bedroom." Not everyone is so sanguine. The hotel manager (the evergreen Rita Moreno) has had it up to here with the crazy gringas, and the unwed local girls are at best ambivalent about giving up their babies to foreigners. The maternal impulse is, of course, strong, but who can afford to be so selfish when the Americans are offering a lifestyle that's patently superior?
Sayles has assembled an all-star cast to portray his anxiety-ridden protagonistas, from the shrewish Nancy (Marcia Gay Harden), who spews nervous derision on just about all the other prospective mothers, to Gail (Mary Steenburgen), a Pollyanna with a surprising secret. Lili Taylor is typically excellent as a pragmatic, unmarried New Yorker, balancing Daryl Hannah's role as a hard-bodied physical therapist whose aloofness makes her an easy target for gossip.
Their stories connect in neat, satisfying ways, and Sayles shows a steady hand with potentially grandiose metaphors: A simple children's book becomes a heartbreaking symbol of knowledge as power. Counteracting "Casa de los Babys'" emotional pull, though, is the recognition that it has nowhere to go. There are so many stories floating in its ether that it would be impossible for Sayles to totally resolve even one of them. While the open-endedness is a letdown, one can't fault its accuracy. In many ways, the life a child is born into is nothing more than a crapshoot -- and the guesswork doesn't stop when the bundle of joy is signed, sealed and delivered.