Sundance 2023 Review: Laura Moss’ BIRTH/REBIRTH is a Stunning Modern Take on the Classic Frankenstein Story
It’s been over 100 years since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was released, so it’s fascinating to see how different storytellers have approached her material to try and add their own clever twists to the timeless story. The latest take on Shelley’s classic novel is from Laura Moss, whose film birth/rebirth examines the themes at play in Shelley’s book but also incorporates an explicitly maternal take on the material, resulting in a haunting, fascinating, and wholly unique tale of biological horror.
In birth/rebirth, we’re introduced to Celie (Judy Reyes), an OB nurse who specializes in being supportive to expecting mothers and helping them through the pregnancy process. Celie herself is a single mother doing her best to raise her daughter Lila (A.J. Lister) in a loving environment. Out of the blue, Lila contracts and succumbs to a case of bacterial meningitis, leaving her in the care of the awkward pathologist Dr. Rose Casper (Marin Ireland), who is tasked with processing the young girl’s body post-mortem. But in her spare time, Rose has been working on a side project that brings the dead back to life, and in Lila, Dr. Casper sees the perfect candidate for medical resurrection.
Once Celie gets word that her daughter’s body has gone missing, she is determined to find Lila at all costs, but she is wholly unprepared for the “miracle” Rose presents her with. From there, the two women form an unlikely alliance because of their common goal: keeping the revivified Lila alive, and doing so at any cost.
As mentioned, with birth/rebirth, Laura Moss’ fascinating feature debut infuses Frankenstein with elements of the modern world of motherhood. But what’s great about the script which Moss co-wrote with Brendan J. O’Brien is that the story isn’t just playing out the traditional dynamics of mother and child here. We see through the character of Rose how malleable the role of mother can be and how our work can sometimes affect how those roles play out with our own social dynamics in this world. Some of birth/rebirth is focused on things like IVF and artificial insemination, and it was nice to see these avenues towards motherhood validated in some ways by O’Brien and Moss’ story by just treating them as typical means of becoming a parent (which is something that spoke to me personally).
I also think that there’s something really interesting about the science at play in birth/rebirth and the way that Laura presents these aspects of the story here is utterly fascinating since some of the stuff that gets explored here feels completely unique (I don’t want to say too much just because it pertains directly to some of the plot). Beyond that, I also think it’s really damn cool to have a mad scientist-centered story led by two women who have two very different forces driving them towards this common goal, and it’s science that brings them together. I do also feel like it’s interesting how, in this day and age, when we think about medicine and how far things can take us, that line of what’s acceptable is continuously getting pushed and pushed and birth/rebirth does a great job of holding a mirror up to that and asking us, the viewers, how far would you go? birth/rebirth may not necessarily provide us with the answers, but I don’t think it’s meant to, which is why it’s a film that has been on my mind for over a week now since I first watched it.
As far as the performances in birth/rebirth go, Marin plays Rose in a way that is so beautifully unconventional here, that even though we’ve seen scientists who are antisocial where they don’t typically connect with others in a way that most of us do, it feels like there’s a method to her approach that parlays perfectly into the themes of birth/rebirth. As someone who was such a huge fan of her work on Scrubs, I absolutely adored Judy Reyes’ performance in this as well, and I loved how she has the opportunity to really step into the spotlight here in ways we haven’t seen before. Reyes’ character, Celie, provides birth/rebirth with the emotional anchor that the otherwise clinically-driven story truly needs, and there are so many moments in this movie where she’s wearing all the emotion on her face, and we get a sense of the pain and turmoil Celie is feeling without Reyes even having to say a word.
While I do wish that birth/rebirth had pushed the “Monkey’s Paw” aspects of its story just a bit further than it does, Moss does a fantastic job with her debut feature that delivers up some new perspectives on a tried-and-true story that is so familiar and recognizable, especially to us genre fans. But to me, birth/rebirth is demonstrative of what the Sundance Midnighters slate is all about: creating compelling stories with unique characters, pushing boundaries, and leaving viewers with much to ponder afterward, and Moss demonstrates here just how well-equipped she is as a filmmaker to achieve all of that and so much more.
Movie Score: 4/5
[Photo Credit: Above photo courtesy of Chananun Chotrungroj / Sundance Institute.]
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