Seeing a girl who is pregnant at the tender age of 14 certainly makes an impact. No doubt if you saw her on the street, you might wonder (with some concern) about the circumstances that led to her situation. You might wonder how the system (education, family, and society) failed her such that instead of continuing to spend her time studying or hanging out with her friends, she is about to embark on motherhood. Fortunately, it’s not something you encounter every day, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. The film, La maternal (The Maternal), by Barcelona-based Aragonese director Pilar Palomero, who won a Goya for Schoolgirls, is about a group of adolescent girls who, due to a range of different life circumstances, have become pregnant and are staying at a center for teenage mothers called La Maternal. It focuses on the story of one of them, Carla, who arrives at the center at the age of 14 in order to give birth to and start raising her son, whose life she conceived – without initially realizing it – together with her friend Efraín.
One of the strong points of the film is the portrayal of Carla by young Catalan actress Carla Quílez, who went on to win the Silver Shell Best Actress award at the San Sebastian Film Festival, becoming its youngest winner to date. And she’s not even an actress, she’s a dancer who, furthermore, made her acting debut without first having read the script. The filmmakers had reached out to her via Instagram to invite her to audition. You’ll understand why when you see how natural she appears on-screen, with her spontaneous reactions, uncontrived gestures and a convincingly sad demeanor. You have the sense of observing a girl in real life, as if looking on through the lens of a pinhole camera. There’s no preparation, no rehearsal, no premeditation. Carla simply acts and responds in an impromptu way, just as she would in real life. And one of the film’s best examples of this is when she bursts into tears in the center for teenage mothers after hearing the other girls introduce themselves.
If you were told La Maternal is a documentary about teenage pregnancy, it wouldn’t be hard to believe it. It gives you a window into childhoods cut short and lets you follow events from a distance. And the fact is that many of the characters are sharing true stories. For example, Jamila Bengharda, now 23, is among the supporting cast members who play themselves. At the age of 16, she found herself pregnant and, having been physically abused by her partner, she decided to go through with the birth on her own. They are difficult stories that hit you hard, and, although there are beautiful moments, like when you see the love these very young mothers end up feeling for their babies, they also show just how incompatible being a teenager and raising a child are. Adolescence is a stage in which you’re still maturing, you lack experience in just about everything, you don’t even know what you want to be when you grow up, what you want to study or what job you want to do (sometimes you don’t even know when you’re an adult). How could you possibly take care of someone else?
Although the film shows how tenderly these mothers look after their children, it also shows the chain of errors that led to pregnancy. In the case of the central character Carla, her mother – played by actress Ángela Cervantes – was not really looking out for her daughter and Carla did not receive adequate sex education. There was clearly a lack of both attention and information. (After all, how can you go five months without realizing you’re pregnant?). And this is at the heart of it all. If those who are going to start having sexual relations know that, if they use protection, they can avoid inadvertently creating another life, the problem is averted (unless the contraceptive fails). It’s vital that all of us are aware of the need to provide ample education, and at an early age, as a means of prevention. And how to achieve that? With education at home, with sex education in schools, with a society that is more conscious of the possible consequences of unprotected sex. It’s a shame we need a movie like La maternal to remind us of this.