Genre filmmaking is in a weird place currently, and has been for a while now. Self-referentiality, endless didacticism, and an absence of any sense of mischief, danger, or indulgence has rendered much of it toothless, tame even. As a result, it has mostly fallen to veteran filmmakers to find ways of pushing things forward. (As far as notable exceptions are concerned, Jane Schoenbrun and Jordan Peele come to mind). Last year, David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future as well as Dario Argento’s Dark Glasses not only showed off those seasoned directors’ impressive skills, but also benefited from being part of their creators’ established bodies of work in the context of which they could be critiqued and/or appreciated.
These days, young filmmakers trying to stand out in a crowded field are forced to get creative: Kyle Edward Ball looked to hauntology and the Internet’s fascination with liminal spaces for Skinamarink, while Eugene Kotlyarenko’s 2020 gonzo-horror Spree lampooned social-media obsession by telling its story solely through smartphone screens and app interfaces. Others have attempted to rectify film history’s long tradition of sidelining marginalized voices by centering female, queer, and non-white characters (2022’s Watcher, 2020’s His House). At first glance, Laura Moss’ birth/rebirth seems to slot neatly into the latter category with its female-focused, Frankenstein-inspired tale of two women, Celi (Judy Reyes) and Rose (Marin Ireland), whose paths cross in the wake of Celi’s daughter’s (A.J. Lister) death.
Moss’ feature-length debut differs from many contemporary horror films in that it takes on the POV of its female main characters without literalizing their struggles in a patriarchal world. In fact, the tone even veers into comedy at times — not entirely surprising, given the somewhat absurd premise. What brings the two women together isn’t strictly the death of Celi’s daughter, Lila, but rather Rose’s theft and subsequent reanimation of Lila’s corpse. When Celi discovers the macabre experiment, her desire to be reunited with her child trumps ethical concerns, and she agrees to aid Rose in continuing her quest to perfect a reanimating formula. This arrangement includes them sharing an apartment, looking after the pig that the animal-loving but otherwise icy Rose previously brought back from the dead, and crossing increasingly grave moral boundaries in order to keep the serum flowing and Lila alive.
The juxtaposition between the warm, motherly nurse Celi and the matter-of-fact, socially inept pathologist Rose is where the film mines most of its more lighthearted moments, and the two leads do turn in captivating performances. Reyes (who also appeared in last year’s commercially successful but critically underrated psychological horror film Smile) in particular does a fine job of calibrating her character’s grief, confusion, joy, and determination as she is faced with her bizarre new circumstances. Ireland’s Rose, on the other hand, takes the absurdity of the situation she has architected in stride, nonchalantly masturbating men, impregnating herself with their sperm, and then using the aborted fetuses’ stem cells for her life-returning potion.
birth/rebirth‘s frank depiction of abortion in a post-Roe v. Wade America feels — in a good way — very of-the-moment. One might even be moved to call it daring for its willingness to “go there,” but unfortunately, not much else in the film plays this way. The premise, which also recalls Stuart Gordon’s 1985 cult classic Re-Animator, offers itself to black-humored gore extravaganzas just as nicely as it offers itself to philosophical inquiry — the genre’s best works often contain elements of both. But Moss’ problem is that they play things too safe. There are some unflinching depictions of premature childbirth, for instance, but their images only rarely feel charged with the kind of visceral power that horror can wield. Similarly, the humor remains fixed in a strange sitcom register that shows Moss’ grasp on comedy isn’t strong enough to pull off convincingly.
Given its connection to Mary Shelley’s iconic Gothic novel, the fact that the film doesn’t explore the dynamic between the “creature” and its creator(s) at all feels like a glaring oversight. Before the girl’s unexpected death, Celi and Lila’s relationship is only established in the most rudimentary terms, and aside from Reyes’ well-performed grief and subsequent tragic attachment to the zombiefied, non-verbal version of her daughter, the film largely throws drama, theme, and genre out the window as it morphs into a leaden procession of obstacles for the two leads to overcome. That the film doesn’t feel especially cinematic — neither formally, nor in terms of thematic ambition — is one thing, but it’s the lack of spirit that makes birth/rebirth, somewhat ironically, feel so lifeless.
DIRECTOR: Laura Moss; CAST: Judy Reyes, Marin Ireland, A.J. Lister; DISTRIBUTOR: IFC Films; IN THEATERS: August 18; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 38 min.