birth/rebirth Review – Sundance Film Festival

Director Laura Moss’ modern gothic birth/rebirth begins with a woman going through a difficult and ultimately fatal delivery of a baby. In the background she hears a doctor say, “I think we can save the baby,” woozily she asks, “What about me?” Moss and co-writer Brendan J. O’Brien aren’t the first people to interrogate the potential horrors of giving birth and how often a foetus is prioritised over its mother. They are, however, making the point at the start of the film because what follows is a dark conversation about motherhood, creation, and what women give away of themselves to “birth.”

The opening scene is not in linear order within the film. Once we see it again we need to re-evaluate everything we thought we understood about the primary characters involved. The gentle maternity nurse, Celie (Judy Reyes) and the clinical pathologist, Dr Rose Casper (Marin Ireland) who ends up with the body of the dead woman.

A partial riff on Frankenstein with a splash of Pet Semetary thrown in, birth/rebirth revolves around two different medical professionals who are also two entirely different kinds of mothers. Celie Morales is a single mother and nurse in a busy Brooklyn hospital. Her six-year-old daughter, Lila (A.J. Lister) is her life and soul. Celie, like many nurses is always on the edge of exhaustion, so when Lila seems to have a slight fever she leaves her with a neighbour and goes to work. Lila’s slight fever turns into bacterial meningitis and within Celie’s single shift her daughter dies.

The other medical professional is Dr Rose Casper. A misfit from the first moment we see her interact with her co-worker. She spends nights cruising bars to find semen to impregnate herself – not for the purpose of giving birth, but for the purpose of harvesting perinatal tissue. Rose is a scientist committed to finding the ultimate cure – the cure for death itself. When she comes across Lila’s body, a perfect genetic match for her experiments, she takes her home.

Celie eventually tracks Rose down and discovers that Rose has reanimated Lila. Of course, from that moment on Celie will not let her daughter out of her sight and strikes a bargain with Rose that they will do whatever they can to keep Lila alive. For Celie that begins as basic caring for Lila and by extension, Rose. For Rose that means mining her own body to give Lila what she needs to thrive. At first we imagine Rose as the Victor Frankenstein and accept at some point things will go terribly wrong with her creature. Moss isn’t content to let us rest so easy into the narrative. Despite Celie calling Rose a “mad scientist” (and to be fair it would be hard to classify what Rose is doing as sane, regardless of her gender). There is literal marrow she means to extract to interrogate the characters of the women caring for Lila.

Eventually through medical misfortune, Rose loses the ability to get pregnant which means that the women have to find another way to get the cells they need. Ethics are brought up and tossed aside at will. Celie insists that Rose knows the name of the woman whose cells they will be collecting. Rose, herself, will only work on people who have signed a donor registry and will not eat meat. Moss is deliberate in poking fun at the lines people arbitrarily refuse to cross. Rose claims what they are doing is science. Celie counters it is medicine. Either way, neither truly recoil at using expectant mother, Emily (Breeda Wool) as a living and unaware donor of the cells they need to make the serum necessary to keep Lila alive.

In terms of horror, there are some particularly queasy medical scenes, but where the horror lingers is in the notion of what a progenitor will do to project her progeny – whether that progeny is a child, or something she classifies as an experiment. Who the true monster is fluid. Celie, once the nurse who would advise a doctor to allow a woman to go through a delivery on her own terms abandons her empathy for other women. Rose doesn’t quite know what empathy is, but as she learns it little by little watching Celie and Lila, she ironically becomes, for at least a short while, the more ‘human’ of the pair.

birth/rebirth is a film that asks questions and sometimes is unable to answer them. If the film has a specific flaw it is that what it is interrogating is “life” and the god complex of science in relation to the so-called natural instincts of giving birth for a woman. Moss doesn’t suggest motherhood does come naturally, but they do suggest that mothering itself is an act that can be entirely selfish as well as selfless and that it’s possible to not understand where those opposing forces cross into something new – mania.

Marin Ireland is uncanny and unnerving as the dead eyed doctor whose fixation with overcoming death began when she was just six years old. Judy Reyes, who we have so often seen in a care-giver role, is a standout as Celie. Quietly stealing all the scenes she is in, alive, or not quite alive, is A.J. Lister as Lila. Moss’ direction is assured and cleverly conceals as much as it reveals – and there are things that it reveals that will be difficult to forget.

For a debut feature, birth/rebirth shows that Laura Moss has a particular voice and one that will only improve the more they use it. For audiences looking for traditional gore or jump scares, the film offers extremely little. For those willing to take on conceptual horror there is much to consider, and a conversation being set in motion. What price do we pay to create life? And what is that cost if we ourselves are not willing to fully pay for it?

Director: Laura Moss

Cast: Breeda Wool, Marin Ireland, Judy Reyes

Writers: Laura Moss, Bredan J. O’Brien

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Curb on Patreon
Become a patron at Patreon!