Frankenstein Reimagining Led By Arresting Performances

Jan 23, 2023

A horror film that asks the big questions surrounding life and death with a sly grin while playing out largely within the small confines of a single apartment, the Shudder original Birth/Rebirth is a prime example of why the midnight programming at the Sundance Film Festival can hold some of the best new works. The feature debut from writer-director Laura Moss, Birth/Rebirth takes the classic story of reanimation and gives it a bit of a modern twist while still taking us on a well-executed descent into darkness. More than a bit goofy, it also dives headfirst into the understated yet still unsettling moments of gore to become grim as hell by the time it all ties together. By striking this balance with an eye for the macabre, the experience proves to be both fun & frightful in its exploration of how far we’ll go for family. When paired with a killer score and two dynamic leading performances, it cuts deep into the very fabric of its terrifying little tale just as the characters do with the bodies at their disposal.

At the center of this is the compassionate Celie (Judy Reyes), who spends most of her days working long hours as a maternity nurse while trying to juggle caring for her own daughter Lila (A.J. Lister) almost entirely alone. Beneath her in the same hospital, there is the pathological Rose (Marin Ireland), who works and lives in isolation with a fixation on death. The two strangers, defined by their opposing character traits and fields, are soon drawn together when tragedy strikes. While Celie had been away at work, she had to leave a sickly Lila in the care of a neighbor. All had seemed fine with her just going through another day of looking after patients before taking the bus home. However, unbeknownst to her, the 6-year-old soon took a turn for the worse. Celia only learned after the fact that she had perished in the hospital.

The world then keeps moving but hers has come to a complete standstill as Moss captures the overwhelming way grief can take hold via revealing wide shots and painfully intimate close-ups. Reyes is similarly spectacular as she shows just how much this loss has upended Celie’s life in even the smallest of moments. Making matters worse is that the grieving mother initially can’t claim her daughter’s body after it has seemed to disappear into thin air shortly after it had been sent down to Rose. Celia subsequently decides to follow the pathologist back to her apartment. It is there that she discovers Rose has seemingly somehow managed to miraculously bring her daughter back from death’s doorstep to the land of the living.

Image via Sundance

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While initially shocked and surprised by what seems like it could be a second chance, Celia soon completely throws herself into caring for her newly resurrected daughter. She essentially moves in with Rose and the two form a working relationship that, while built around a rather horrifying job, also has its moments of humor. Moss and co-writer Brendan J. O’Brien find plenty of glorious little moments of silliness in everything from the deadpan delivery of Ireland to the way the domestic space becomes a humble yet ludicrous laboratory. It embraces the ridiculousness of the premise while taking the emotional stakes deathly seriously.

The joy that Celia initially has over seeing her daughter alive turns to something approaching fear as it becomes clear that the young girl may not even be the person she once knew. Her body has been brought back, yes, but it isn’t apparent how much of her personality remains intact. The film makes a bleakly dark gag of this at certain moments, including in one absurd scene involving the turning on and off of a television, while still never losing sight of how disquieting this is all is. It mixes the silly and the serious, intertwining the mirthful and the macabre to find a unique wavelength all its own that you can’t help getting wrapped up in.

With that being said, there is a sense that the film is oddly holding back at moments. Some of this comes down to how the narrative is confined largely to either the apartment or the hospital as the two characters must live a lonely life governed entirely by secrecy. The routine they fall into is the point, proving to be consistently eccentric and eerie in equal measure, though there still was a desire for a bit of something more to break up these patterns. We get glimpses via old tapes she made of her medical experiments of how Rose has done this and so much more before that prove to be quite distressing even as they are surprisingly fleeting.

It is understandable that Celia will then try to look away from this, as if to close her own mind off from the similarities of the increasingly depraved deeds she herself is doing to keep her daughter, but there are details that feel like they are being smoothed over just a bit. It leaves certain moments cutting just a bit shallower than one would hope. This doesn’t take away from the overall experience too much, but it leaves a lingering void about what could have been had the film really embraced some of the darker ideas lurking underneath the surface.

Thankfully, the conclusion makes up for any potential hang-ups that accumulated along the way. In a rather bold yet no less fearsome fashion, it tosses away any restraint and lets the characters get taken in by the darkness. Without ever being showy about it, the film reveals how the work that Celie and Rose had been doing to keep Lila alive changed them just as much as it did her. Even as the film pulls out all the stops, the character work remains subtle in a way that gets under your skin. The magnificent performances of Reyes and Ireland align perfectly, peeling back the humanity their two characters had only tenuously been clinging to.

Without tipping off anything about the exact lengths the two will go to, it dials up the dread to the point that the story enters into a thrilling yet terrifying free fall from which the characters may not emerge unscathed. When it then pulls the ripcord, leaving us floating back down to Earth with the persistent sense that we may not like what we find there, both the outstanding last shot and subsequent final line offer one closing laceration to our very soul. For those who look out for the horror gems from the festival, Birth/Rebirth proves that it is as good a place to start as any as it tears through flesh and blood to get right to its brutal, beating heart.

Rating: A-

Birth/Rebirth debuted at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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