Co-written and directed by Laura Moss.
Starring Marin Ireland, Judy Reyes, Breeda Wool, and A.J. Lister.
A morgue technician successfully reanimates the body of a little girl, but to keep her breathing she will need to harvest biological materials from pregnant women. When the girl’s mother, a nurse, discovers her baby alive, they enter into a deal that forces them both down a dark path of no return.
Laura Moss makes one hell of an eye-catching debut with her provocative horror Birth/Rebirth, which in addition to being perhaps the most twisted movie about co-parenting ever made, offers a sturdy platform for the criminally underappreciated Marin Ireland and Judy Reyes.
Rose (Ireland) is a clinically-minded, no-nonsense pathologist who surreptitiously experiments with reanimating the dead. This brings her into conflict and eventually collusion with Celie (Reyes), an overworked maternity nurse who suddenly loses her six-year-old daughter Lila (A.J. Lister) to bacterial meningitis. When Lila’s body goes missing, she discovers that Rose is not only responsible but has successfully managed to bring Lila back from the dead – though quite what that means, and how far the pair will go to keep her alive, is another matter altogether.
The means through which Rose and Celie are brought together might be a touch contrived, yet Moss does a generally stellar job of melding the heightened and macabre – even the ridiculous – with the more relatable human drama at her film’s core. This is, after all, a tale of two women effectively co-raising one of their reanimated daughters, each motivated by their own difficulty in moving past the finality of death.
If the initial tonal severity might suggest a film taking itself deadly seriously, Moss and Brendan J. O’Brien’s script ultimately massages its heartbreakingly brutal meditation on grief with flecks of extremely grim humour, especially as the pair’s quest to keep Lila “alive” becomes ever-more desperate. Rose’s detached approach to her increasingly ethically horrifying actions are sure to rouse some uncomfortable laughs among viewers, even if this is a fundamentally sad tale about the refusal to let a dead loved one go. And just as it balances its tone so too does it find an impressive compromise between meaningful character development and gooier gross-out elements.
But more than anything, this is overpoweringly a showcase for its two lead actresses, in a film which makes an evidently concerted effort to keep men on the periphery no less. The few males on screen are minor characters and, more often than not, mildly annoying foils to the protagonists.
Rose and Celie are custodians of life on opposite ends of the spectrum, but brought together through their uniquely gnarly predicament. On one hand we have Rose, played with a wonderfully persuasive no-bullshit temperament by Ireland. Her clear impatience with anything which might impede her work is periodically amusing, as is her utterly single-minded fixation on furthering her experiments. But Ireland also looks between the cracks to realise a full-bodied character wounded in her own distinct way.
On the other hand, Reyes is a devastating portrait of mourning; as she grasps her dead daughter’s bagged-up belongings while leaving the hospital, it’s clear her very soul has been ripped out. It’s a challenging part if only to persuade the audience of the more torrid places her character eventually goes, but Reyes pulls it off quite beautifully.
Technicals are meanwhile rock solid, from tight lensing by Chananun Chotrungroj – who also did a great job shooting last Sundance’s Palm Trees and Power Lines – to an eerie, atmospheric score from Ariel Marx.
If the place that Moss’ film arrives at feels tailor-made to divide, she laudably commits to the full-throttle potential of the setup. Birth/Rebirth offers up a queasy, Frankensteinian riff on grief with an appreciably nasty streak, but it’s the outstanding performances from Marin Ireland and Judy Reyes that take it to the next level.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.