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‘birth/rebirth’: A Frankensteinesque Retelling of Gory Dreams (REVIEW)

Is it too early to call favorites? I think this film might just easily be one of my favorite ones. birth/rebirth has been on my must-watch list since I saw it was going to play at the festival. I was so excited to watch it that I completely forgot that I had it written down as a day two of features watch, but I am so glad I forgot and kicked off the festival with it. The Mary Shelley “Frankenstein” retelling connects two women – Celie (Judy Reyes), a nurse who has experienced her daughter’s untimely death, and Rose (Marin Ireland), a doctor desperate to prove she can reverse it. It focuses on how we handle grief and how it warps our perception of right/wrong, with motherhood being a driving factor. 

Marin Ireland as Rose and Judy Reyes as Celie in birth/rebirth (COURTESY: Sundance Institute)

I believe a line in the film perfectly encapsulates it: “dignity and motherhood don’t always line up.” And holy fucking shit, do they not line up in this story. Laura Moss is an expert at keeping our attention all the way through, masterfully implementing a phenomenal “show, don’t tell” approach that had me screaming and gasping in horror once my brain finally connected pieces of the puzzle. There’s no need to tell the audience exactly what’s happening because the story is told so that you can put the pieces together alongside Celie. What she discovers about Rose slowly grows from bad to why the fuck aren’t you running out of there immediately? But through the theme of the film, we get to understand the reasoning behind it and how a mother’s love for their child trumps any red flags she might encounter, slowly but surely turning into a walking red flag herself as she gets stuck in the denial and bargaining stages of grief, unable to let go. 

Judy Reyes and Marin Ireland have intense, haunting chemistry that carries the film through. The ties that bind them only grow stronger as they go on this dangerous path together. Scientific discovery blends into maternal desperation, causing them to continue up the stakes, neither of them wanting to give up on their “experiment” for their own selfish reasons. This obsession only grows as obstacles continue to block their path forward. Still, instead of allowing these blockages to give them time to process what they’re doing and move on, the cycle of scientific obsession and motherly anguish keeps them finding ways around the obstacles. They’re willing to pay whatever price necessary and do whatever it takes to continue on. 

A.J. Lister as Lila in birth/rebirth (COURTESY: Sundance Institute)

Newcomer A.J. Lister is phenomenal. Her character’s bubbly persona contrasts greatly with the kid she becomes as the story progresses. While the film is meant to be horror, my one critique would be that it could’ve used a heavier hand on the scary department. Yes, there is a lot of gory and chill-inducing body horror imagery of autopsies, pregnancy, and probably anything you can think of in a medical setting. Still, I would’ve loved to see more Lila (A.J. Lister) throughout the film to add to the eeriness of the whole ordeal. The reanimated corpse character may be overplayed at this point. However, after something narratively significant occurs, I think they could’ve pushed the violence to truly see how much these women are willing to overlook in pursuing their goals. 

Rating: 9/10

birth/rebirth made its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival on January 20, 2023. They are currently searching for distribution.

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