Best Of Sundance 2023: Frankenstein-Inspired Birth/Rebirth Is More Tender Than Terrifying

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Best Of Sundance 2023: Frankenstein-Inspired Birth/Rebirth Is More Tender Than Terrifying

The sounds of laboured breathing bookend Birth/Rebirth, an apt soundtrack to Laura Moss’ darkly comic sci-fi horror that navigates the frighteningly porous boundary between life and death, and the gnawing desperation that might push someone to cross it. Through two medical professionals, one of whom is helpless to prevent death and the other who’d kill to create life — in one of the script’s slyest twists, they inhabit either persona at different points — this Frankenstein-inspired, Pet Sematary riff, about a morgue technician who reanimates her colleague’s dead child, pulses with just enough new blood to feel fresh.

The opening is a frantic blur. A woman dies during childbirth. While her body is sent to the morgue, her baby is taken to the neonatal intensive care unit. A pair of hands systematically cut her open. Another pair of hands cradle him in concern. These crosscut scenes take place at a hospital, the site where life and death converge and a closeup of bloodied gloves could signal either. It’s a nice bit of setup — the gentler presence is maternity nurse Celie (Judy Reyes), the other is frosty morgue technician Rose (Marin Ireland). Their paths will cross when Celie’s six-year-old daughter dies unexpectedly and Rose, privately running experiments on cellular rejuvenation, brings the girl home and manages to revive her.

Best Of Sundance 2023: Frankenstein-Inspired Birth/Rebirth Is More Tender Than Terrifying
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Celie wrings emotion into even the most factual of statements — when she says her daughter was born in 2015, it thrums with the ache of how young she died — while Rose infuses even sexual encounters with a clinical coldness. If these women seem more like types than real people for much of the film’s early portions, that ceases once the script brings them together and the sweet weirdness of their odd-couple chemistry begins to propel the story. We find out that for Rose, the indisputable facts of science are a way to cope with the inevitability of death, and the punishing toll she exacts on her own body is worth it if she can regenerate another. Celie’s compassion is what makes her a better caregiver, but her emotion is also what dangerously overrides her better judgment. The two women fall into an easy pattern of co-parenting, reimagining Sunday morning cartoons and first steps as a series of cognitive and behavioral data points to be logged.

Trading tenderness for the inherent terror of her premise, Moss and co-writer Brendan J. O'Brien don't dwell on the horrors of what Rose and Celie are attempting to do, or even the ethical considerations. Instead, the film reflects a world in which painful, medically invasive procedures — an amniocentesis test involves a long needle being inserted into the woman’s stomach, right next to the baby’s head — have long been considered routine for women. Under the film’s mad science premise brews a potent tale about motherhood, the feeling of guilt that accompanies it and the risks and heartache that follow. Rose, despite her ability to create life, has never considered how to nurture it in the way that a parent can. And Celie, whose identity has become so inextricable from her motherhood, is left bereft by the prospect of her newly animated child not recognising her.

Best Of Sundance 2023: Frankenstein-Inspired Birth/Rebirth Is More Tender Than Terrifying
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Seemingly throwaway lines reveal themselves as bits of ominous foreshadowing and the film builds to a stunningly horrific sequence that reframes one that has come before in a devastating new light. For a script so refined at the granular level, however, its plot conveniences hamper its grander visions. Rose operates with such blunt obviousness, lugging around a suitcase of harvested organs, it’s hard to believe her medical malpractice hasn’t been discovered at work. Celie, on discovering that the daughter she thought she lost is now alive, isn’t given the space to process the emotional whiplash before her professional training kicks in and she’s all focussed bedside manner. A stretch in which the two must resort to medical fraud to keep the experiment going wraps up too neatly. And despite all the viscera on display, the film veers away from venturing into any truly dark territory. The implications of a disturbing event towards the end are ignored in favour of how it moves the story along.

Still, for a story this pregnant with possibility, Birth/Rebirth does a fine job of delivering on its genre promises. For better, and much, much worse, it concludes, a mother’s love is the most powerful force there is.

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