Dir: John Sayles. US. 2003. 95 mins.

John Sayles' latest ensemble is a frustratingly undernourished work which takes a potentially fascinating milieu and merely offers a glimpse at it. Never shy in the past of running his movies to 130 or 140 minutes, Sayles stops short here at 95 while puzzlingly introducing more characters than the film can handle. The result is a taste of life in an unspecified Latin American town which is no more than a taste; audiences accustomed to narrative arcs and resolutions will be sorely disappointed, especially since Sayles is such a master at fashioning a compelling cast of characters.

Sayles' indie brand name, the strong cast of actresses and the intriguing premise will generate international sales and publicity, but the film will fade fast from theatres and is too fragmented to win attention in the awards race. Its blend of English and Spanish languages could prove a hurdle in dubbed countries where the contrast will be lost and in English-speaking countries where it could be construed a foreign language picture.

Technically the focus of this wildly unfocused enterprise are six American women holed up in a hotel in a coastal South American town waiting to fulfil their residency requirement in order to adopt local children. Among them are the insecure and critical Nan (Marcia Gay Harden), athletic Skipper (Hannah) who is getting over a slew of miscarriages, the affluent Jennifer (Gyllenhaal) whose marriage is on the rocks, a poor Irish woman from Boston (Lynch), a headstrong wannabe single mother (Taylor) and Gayle (Steenburgen) who acts as a buffer between all the women.

But as much as Sayles explores the different needs and maternal longings of the American women, he also shows us the world of the locals (who all talk in Spanish) - the hotel owner Senora Munoz (Moreno), her unstable communist son (Bruno Bichir), one of the maids Asuncion (Martinez) whose baby is being raised by another family, another local teenager who has got pregnant (Martha Higareda) much to the chagrin of her mother, a young street boy who has already started sniffing paint with his pals etc.

The Latin crowd is generally more engaging than the American sextet, although neither group is well-developed. Sayles hammers his points home with didacticism and not a little pomposity, from Lynch's theatrical monologue about her maternal yearnings to the obvious parallels between the different nationalities and classes and the various 'examples' of bungled mother/daughter relationships.

The film is like the pilot for a classy TV drama series and its abrupt ending, while no Limbo, will annoy upscale audiences looking for more closure from their set-ups or at least a promise of episode two. Of course in Sayles' view, nothing in life is ever concluded satisfactorily or with neatness but sometimes, in the feature film format, that doesn't wash.

Of the actors, Harden has the meatiest role as the epitome of an argumentative and xenophobic American tourist with a few secrets of her own to hide; and Moreno's customary radiance shines, albeit briefly. Sayles and his cinematographer Rubinstein expertly capture the atmosphere of the town from the jarring sunshine to the shabbiness of the hotel rooms. And there is no denying how touching are the scenes of the unwanted babies unwittingly waiting to be wrapped up and taken away by their eager new foreign mothers.

Prod cos: IFC Productions.
US dist: IFC Films.
Int'l sales: Pandora.
Exec prods: Jonathan Sehring, Caroline Kaplan
Prods: Lemore Syvan, Alejandro Springall
Scr/Ed: John Sayles
DoP: Mauricio Rubinstein
Prod des: Felipe Fernandez
Mus: Mason Daring
Main cast: Lili Taylor, Mary Steenburgen, Marcia Gay Harden, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Daryl Hannah, Susan Lynch, Rita Moreno, Vanessa Martinez, Pedro Armendariz