[Fantasia 2023 Review] BIRTH/REBIRTH

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, BIRTH/REBIRTH being covered here wouldn’t exist.

There’s a scene towards the end of Laura Moss’ BIRTH/REBIRTH where Dr. Rose Casper (Marin Ireland) asks her supervisor (LaChanze) what the point of life is. She says that she finds joy in the little things, such as music, reading, and family. Rose offers a follow-up question: “And that’s enough for you?”

A contemporary interpretation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, BIRTH/REBIRTH is built on a strong foundation of ideas. It roots its horror firmly in philosophy, tackling themes of femininity, motherhood, and consciousness (such as what it means to protect conscious experiences). It’s a grounded spin on the classic novel that perhaps plays itself too safe. But as a minimalist exploration of centuries-old moral quandaries, it’s an intriguing watch.

Celie (Judy Reyes) works as a maternity nurse at a New York City hospital. She’s also a single mom, caring for her daughter Lila (A.J. Lister). Rose also works at the hospital as a brilliant morgue technician. A prime example of how opposites attract, Celie’s warm, caring demeanor differs from Rose’s emotionally detached, scientifically-driven personality.

Marin Ireland has become a staple of festival-circuit horror films over the past few years, and she plays the Dr. Frankenstein-inspired part effectively here. Having portrayed a nurse on the hit series “Scrubs,” Judy Reyes also slips into her role comfortably. The two make for an endearing odd couple, each possessing similar interests, albeit for different reasons.

After Lila tragically dies of bacterial meningitis and mysteriously vanishes from the hospital’s morgue, Celie confronts Rose and discovers that Lila’s body is being kept alive at Rose’s apartment. Rose explains that she has been experimenting on the dead for years, having successfully reanimated a pet pig.

Celie, intent on keeping her daughter alive by any means necessary, teams up with Rose to aid in the completion of the experiment – a partnership that appears to be mutually beneficial for both of them. The catch? For Lila to make a full recovery, it will require the harvesting of fetal tissue from pregnant women.

Cronenbergian as it may be, anyone expecting the same degree of stomach-churning body horror might be surprised to discover that BIRTH/REBIRTH  relies more on thematic dread. Moss directs the film with restraint, opting for thoughtful dialogue and performances to carry things forward instead of gory details. It certainly comes across as well-researched in its medical jargon, but not every character choice and plot point feels earned. Celie, in particular, makes a few decisions that seem emotionally and philosophically at odds with her as a person and caretaker.

BIRTH/REBIRTH is most interesting when its two leads confront the notion of what they hope to accomplish. Rose’s question about the purpose of life is also a question for the audience. What would it mean to live if we removed death from the equation? Like any worthy piece of science fiction, it’s a hefty conversation starter. And even if some of the plotting does not always hold up to the hard-hitting questions the film asks, there’s value in how it encourages the viewer to form their own hypothesis.

BIRTH/REBIRTH had its Quebec premiere at Fantasia Film Festival on July 31st, 2023. IFC Films and Shudder will release BIRTH/REBIRTH in theaters on August 18th.

Tom Milligan
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