Laura Moss’s Birth/Rebirth starts with a different type of horrific circumstances some mothers potentially know in the state of the modern health care system. An emergency C-section birth occurs, and with the mother’s final words, she utters, “What about me?” As they take the baby away, the mother dies (the scene which comes back in a full circle manner at the end of the film), and right from the start, Birth/Rebirth establishes an uncomfortable, uneasy tempo as it molds the classic story of Frankenstein through the eyes of two hospital workers who have to join forces unexpectedly.
Even as Celie (Judy Reyes) and Dr. Rose Casper (Marin Ireland) work in the same hospital, they might as well be 3,000 miles away. Rose is a morgue technician who is more than comfortable working in her office’s dimly lit basement confines. Her demeanor is icy and somewhat robotic as she approaches every human interaction and emotion through a scientific equation. Within that blank stare, Rose is hiding a secret.
Back in her apartment, she’s working on an experiment that started when her mother showed her the regenerative capabilities of a starfish when she was younger. Rose’s unshakable nature working with death has equally pushed her on a course to find if resurrection is capable – and amazingly. It has! She brought a sporty pig named Muriel back to life with a monoclonal concoction, but Rose is looking to up the stakes with a human.
Celie is unbelievably tired – trying to do her best as a single mother and be there for her daughter, Lila (AJ Lister). Unfortunately, tragedy strikes and Lila suddenly dies of bacterial meningitis. Celie doesn’t even have time to grieve because the hospital tells her Lila’s body is gone, and there’s some sneaking suspicion Rose is tied to it (Rose loads a heavy suitcase in the back of her car in broad daylight. Not suspicious at all!) Within a justifiable confrontation, Celie discovers Rose has placed Lila back on the path of the living.
Well, how can this be? Within Moss and co-writer Brendan J. O’Brien’s story, these two women unpack the complexities of science and how that conjoins with the difficulties of motherhood. Celie is pleased with the possibility of Lila returning to her – so much so that she moves into Rose’s apartment, and they begin taking shifts. This film presents Lila as the “Frankenstein” monster, but there’s more on the surface when considering Rose’s character. This is the break Rose has been waiting for – a one-and-a-million match of her own DNA profile, but it doesn’t come without a cost.
Rose uses her body as a defacto operation board, ranging from bone marrow to pre-natal stem cells harvested from artificial insemination. This considerably affects her physical state, even as Celie tries to be a friend/caretaker. For Celie, this is another chance to blunt her guilt of losing Lila and being away from her for large spaces at a time. It’s not like Lila is herself – she’s reduced to slow movements and grunting in disapproval, but a promise of life drives both of these unlikely allies together.
Cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj keeps the lighting murky and the atmosphere darker for an eerie undercurrent as morals and things of that nature fall to the wayside. The camera is usually fixed to the faces of each character. Ariel Marx’s score is almost a character, with hums playing off perplexed looks and horrifying developments. Ireland and Reyes are paired well together as they fully commit to their polar opposite ideals. Moss begins to bring both characters to the deep end of what this experiment means. These are medical professionals, after all. There’s an oath that they both took from an ethical standpoint.
However, what’s occurring is illegal and can be considered unnatural – when Rose’s methods to get the well-of-life formula dries up, the characters look towards despiration as inspiration. For one person, it’s her scientific legacy. For the other, it’s the main chance of being a mother. Moss also inserts themes of ageism and the biological clock that elevate this premise further from being just a simple interpolation of Mary Shelley’s classic tale. In the advances of science, are you willing to give up what’s right to be happy and pay the cost of that? Birth/Rebirth’s ability to make you ponder those arguments is why it is so effective in its mission.