Laura Moss’s birth/rebirth, a Sundance premiere, is unexpectedly funny for a movie in which the body of a dead child is reanimated by a somewhat spooky morgue technician. That may be because most of the horrors of this movie are drawn from everyday. For a morgue technician or, say, a nurse, even the freakiest medical procedures or biological traumas have a whiff of the routine about them. Even under the most dire circumstances, as in the case of a dead child. There’s nothing unusual about an amniocentesis (even if the mere idea of a scary-long needle sucking up fluid from the womb, within inches of a fetus’s head, feels like it must be some form of alien torture), or bone marrow aspiration (even if removing a bit of someone’s liquid marrow sounds like a procedure solely performed in hell, on your worst enemies), or a medical abortion, or a typical (if fatal) bout of bacterial infection, the kind that leaves a corpse covered in unsightly scabs. For people who see this every day, these extremes can easily be approached with a sense of hands-off distance: another workday. What gives birth/rebirth its dark, subtle, painful sense of humor, as well as its horror and its thoughtful gravity, is the sense that even the most profound problems of life and death can be approached like problems of science — that the act of trying to give someone you love more life can result in basic trial and error and scientific problem-solving, with grocery demands (don’t forget to steal us some amniotic fluid!) and to-do lists (don’t forget to let our little corpse watch her favorite cartoons!).
It’s a plain, productive approach which, as Moss’s movie (co-written Brendan J. O’Brien) smartly imagines it, comes easily to mothers, even if one of the parents in question isn’t exactly the mothering kind. birth/rebirth works because of the odd couple at its center, the pairing of the aforementioned morgue technician, Rose (Marin Ireland), who is dryly straightforward and driven in large part by science, and her co-conspirator Celie (Judy Reyes), a nurse at Bronx Memorial Hospital with more bedside manner in her big toe than Rose could muster if her life depended on it. Rose, sporting the grim, sculptural scowl that’s becoming Ireland’s trademark, is the Dr. Frankenstein of the two. A body lands in her lab, the body of a child, and it’s revealed to be perfect for the ongoing experiment Rose has been developing back home, in her bedroom. The experiment involves using cellular material from fetuses to design a serum that can bring the dead back from the dead, a kind of worst-case/best-case scenario for the stem cell debate.
Rose, ever resourceful and, frankly, chaotically committed to her work, supplies the fetal tissue herself; an encounter with a trucker in a bar bathroom, involving a clinically insistent handjob and suction tube, clues us in to the mechanics of that particular procedure. Her first successful attempt at making a serum brought a pig back to life, using material from pig fetuses. Now, she has a human subject — the six-year-old daughter, it turns out, of Celie. Tragedy opens this movie. During a busy work day full of silly mishaps, Celie misses the call that informs her that her sick daughter, Lila (A.J. Lister), had to be hospitalized because of a sudden bout of bacterial meningitis. By the time Celie arrives at her daughter’s side, the girl is gone. And when the time comes to retrieve the girl’s body, she’s gone again — her corpse spirited away to the bedroom of a mad scientist for whom the act of bringing the girl back to life is urgent, but impersonal.
The humor isn’t in the tragedy. It’s in the way that this awkward and uncanny scheme falls, for these two strangers, into an ironically straightforward working arrangement, more like co-parenting than like criminal desecration of a corpse (among other moral trespasses). In the one corner, there’s Celie, heartbroken over the death of her daughter but also an extremely capable, experienced nurse, whose first concerns when she finds her daughter’s body in Rose’s bedroom and learns of the experiment are to ask how long the tube of the IV has been kinked, how long it’s been since Rose last turned her daughter’s (dead) body. The outlandish horror of the discovery barely lasts, considering the circumstances. Her daughter is alive. And she is a nurse. And that crazy woman Rose, with her reanimated pet pig and aversion to calling any of this a “miracle,” isn’t quite caring for her baby in the right ways — but Celie can. Suddenly, she’s packing her bags and moving in; the girl, who will eventually wake up and show some awareness, needs 24-hour care. Suddenly, it’s like Rose and Celie are busy parents arranging their schedules around their daughter’s soccer practices and cartoon diet. There’s a desperate urgency to keeping this girl alive once she’s brought back to life. But Rose and Celie are already flying so close to the sun from the start that their outright desperation is sublimated beneath the sense of routine. They have a job to do. They have to keep this girl alive.
There’s love in even this most perilous scheme — that’s the nugget of truth that Moss’s film, with its efficient, increasingly suspenseful dramatic structure and dryly horrifying sense of wit, explores throughout. It’s why the movie isn’t scary — it’s creepy. Creepier for the fact that neither Rose nor Celie is terribly creeped out by it. What does that tell us about life, death and love? Reyes and Ireland are ideal for these roles because of how well they play against each other. Reyes, an alum of the show Scrubs, couldn’t be more natural in the role of a caregiver. Her performance can teach us a thing or two about the work of caregivers. Moss’s film goes out of its way to give us close-ups on Reyes’s face in acts of care — for her daughter, yes, but also for her patients, and for even Rose’s reanimated pig. The throughline of her approach is almost startling. There’s love in the way she cares for expectant mothers that she tends to on the job. And it’s the kind of love that Ireland, by contrast, is so good at stripping from her affect; she plays the kind of woman who shocks colleagues when she smiles, who feels prone to overinvesting herself in her work, such that seeing her confused over what day it is, with dark circles under her eyes from burning the midnight oil, isn’t at all surprising. Yet these women have more in common than they or we realize, at first, which is part of the movie’s power.
birth/rebirth is partially about motherhood — about how far a mother will go, what she will allow, what risks will seem worth it and not, what pain seems worth enduring and not. All of these questions are rendered somewhat ironic by a character like Rose: who creates life both biologically, within her body, and as a scientist, in her quest to nail down a formula for reanimation, all the while failing to amount to much as a “parent,” per se. The questions resonate nevertheless. They apply, for example, to a patient at Celie’s job, memorably played by Breeda Wool, who’s subjected to repeated medical procedures — an unknowing participant in Celie and Rose’s plan — that force her to weigh whether the exhaustion and agitating anxiety are worth having one’s belly prodded with a needle month after month. But the motherhood question, as Moss’s rich approach teaches us, extends as well to relationships between mothers, and between women more broadly. Mary Shelly, whose Frankenstein was a clear inspiration for Moss’s film, famously suffered multiple miscarriages. There’s an extent to which the act of growing a child in one’s body is its own Frankenstein act — a feat of creation that is no less of a miracle than reanimating the dead. Only the sense of loss, in the case of a child, is more pure. birth/rebirth shows both Rose and Celie going very far. They’re going to run into problems with this scheme — obviously. They’re going to solve those problems in ways that endanger themselves and others and push them both past their ethical limits, if we can even say that someone involved in an experiment such as this has “limits.” The subtle genius of birth/rebirth is in how acutely Moss gives those limits and that danger a sense of context in the broader act of giving life: what it means, what it allows childbearing people to understand about their bodies and each other.
Rose and Celie know what they’re asking of their and other women’s bodies. They proceed anyway. They do so selfishly, without a doubt. They do not fret over the question of whether it is worth it to save one life while taking another. birth/rebirth is not hung up on foot-shuffling over the question of fairness. Moss strikes a tone that’s far more matter of fact: Of course it isn’t fair. Just as the death of a child or a mother is not fair. Moss avoids allowing birth/rebirth to become an outright zombie movie — and, in fact, its weakest moment involves Lila coming to life and committing an act that doesn’t quite feel right for the movie, because it distracts from the more uncanny questions of what Lila isn’t, what she can and cannot do, settling too easy into monster territory. Even as the homages to Frankenstein are noted, the movie is at its best when it’s decidedly less hung up on the monstrosity of it all. This is a monster without the dramatic finesse of a personality or a “character.” Celie wants Lila to become Lila again, of course, but Moss’s film balances this desire out with a more nose-to-ground approach, a study of the work that it takes to make this happen — that it takes, really, to care for a child.
That’s the curious tension at this movie’s heart. Celie rejects Rose’s attitude that this experiment is merely an experiment — her daughter’s life is at stake. But her daughter never really reemerges as the girl that she once was. She breathes, she reacts, she acknowledges — and she is unpredictable. She is more than just a body, but she is also, in some ways, tragically reducible to one. How far, really, can a plan like this go? It’s a strength of birth/rebirth that it has questions like this in mind from the start, and that it moves between its emotional moods — pain, humor, danger, love — with the deft skill of a parent for whom a child’s unpredictable chaos is a fact of the every day. The movie is freaky. But it never feigns to become a mere freakshow. It works, in part, because it hurts. It works because it defers that hurt until, at long last, it cannot be avoided.