Laura Moss’ “Frankenstein” Riff Is Alive, Thanks To Judy Reyes’ Stunning Performance [Sundance]

Jan 28, 2023

Working parents trudging through the muck of their personal lives and neverending responsibilities tend to make the same mistake: They forget about their children. Laura Moss’ debut film, “birth/rebirth,” forgets the child, too, but for her purposes, this is a feature and not a lapse. Around 40 of the movie’s 98 minutes go by with barely a moment’s thought given to the little girl at the center of Moss’ script, co-written with Brendan J. O’Brien; when enough’s enough, the girl sits bolt upright in bed like Kane rising prone from the mat startling one of her two caregivers and shifting “birth/rebirth” into a spookier mode. 
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It’s one of “birth/rebirth’s” concrete horror beats, being one of the few where the girl, Lila (A.J. Lister), is the object of attention – partly the audience’s, but mostly her parents’, finally snapped out of their own self-absorption. The thing about Lila: She’s dead. Meningitis takes her early in the film, left in a trusted neighbor’s custody by her mother, Celie (Judy Reyes), a maternity nurse and single mom, busting her ass to both provide and be present for her beloved, precocious, winsome daughter. Lila’s sudden passing sends Celie into a state of shock. One moment, the child is there; the next, she’s on a slab under the cold ministrations of hospital pathologist Rose (Marin Ireland), to whom the phrase “antisocial” is too gentle to apply. Rose likes the dead. The dead don’t ask anything of her. She doesn’t ask anything of them, either. Instead, she takes.
Moss riffs on “Frankenstein” in her work, with an emphasis on the mad scientist – a phrase that suits Rose far better, and which Celie throws in her face later in the film – and deemphasis on the monster. Addressing the “mad” allows Moss to soften, if not outright avoid, overdetermination of intent and metaphor; atmosphere helps, too. No sequence plays out where the movie tells viewers that the true monster is man (or, in this case, woman); the characters tell each other, and reveal their monstrosity plain as day, Rose being more upfront about it than Celie. Rose pilfers spare parts from corpses. She’s researching a cure for death, with semi-promising results. When Lila ends up on her table, she fudges hospital paperwork and sneaks the kiddo’s body to her apartment, where Celie, whose maternal senses are sharper than a bloodhound’s, discovers her. 
It’s horror movie tradition for characters to make ghastly discoveries, stare them down, and come to a decision for the audience to holler over. Of course we wouldn’t saunter into the unlit basement to check out the bump and creak we heard during dinner; we aren’t characters in horror movies. We would, for example, call the cops on Rose were we in Celie’s shoes, but Moss couches inspiration from Mary Shelley in the spirit of EC Comics, where normal, everyday people, when presented with an unthinkable and straightforwardly macabre choice, smash the big red button that reads “let’s play God” against their better judgment. “birth/rebirth” is about Lila. But it’s about Lila in the way that ugly disputes between parents are about the kids at all, which means it’s about Rose and Celie, their respective goals, and a total disregard for ethics. 
Lila’s mom and her sort-of foster mom, a role that Rose doesn’t exactly accept but which she ends up shouldering all the same, mean well. Rose is trying to conquer the end of life; Celie is trying to save her baby, having been given a second chance to do so when she whiffed the first time. Lila’s death isn’t Celie’s fault, of course. But to be a parent is to feel the burden of every tragedy that scrapes our children, whether minor or mortal. Rose is written by Moss as twitchy and aloof, verging on alien, and played by Ireland with a determined, stoic incomprehension of Celie’s neurotypical pearl-clutching over grave robbing; dead is dead, so what’s the harm in reanimating a pot bellied pig or her own expired mom? Who cares? It’s science. 
That’s where she and Celie disagree; Celie calls it “medicine.” In a way, this makes Celie a good deal more dangerous than Rose, and “birth/rebirth” tracks her downward spiral from healer to necromancer on the strength of Reyes’ incredible portrait of a mother willing to sacrifice what she must to ease her grief. The movie places Reyes on familiar ground – “Scrubs” went off the air 12 years ago, but she’ll carry her role as Carla with her for the rest of her days – but uses that familiarity for wicked ends, while Reyes wears fatigue like a seamless prosthetic. Ageless beauty is a rare gift. By “birth/rebirth’s” end, Celie looks like she’s in her 50s going on 90, sapped of vitality by her participation in Rose’s work, not to mention her moral compass; “Tales From the Crypt’s” ghoulish influence on Moss’ film runs deep. 
Like Andrew Semans’ “Resurrection,” one Sundance ‘22’s standout pictures, “birth/rebirth” is difficult to categorize; Moss presents the movie as an eerie amalgam, stitching together horror roots with an off-kilter tone, dreamlike framing, and a focus on human sin over monster shenanigans. Whether her filmmaking reads chiefly as horror or surrealism is in the eye of the beholder. But “birth/rebirth,” no matter what genus it’s filed under, is a constitutionally sad story, because nothing’s sadder than watching a bereaved parent throw themselves entirely into fruitless exercises for redemption’s sake. Rose and Celie’s experiment has one inevitable outcome. Turning the camera away from Lila and onto the adults lets Moss capitalize on basic audience expectations, piling dread on anxiety with every failed or thwarted effort, because we know how films like this end, but Moss bakes horror into the characters’ reckless ignorance. Rose and Celie imagine success at the cost of nothing but the sweat off their brows, plus months’ worth of lost sleep. They’re kidding themselves. Normally, ego married with naivety is a bummer. In “birth/rebirth,” it’s gut-chilling. [B]
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