On over-editing, under-imagining, and squandering the perfect casting of your lead role
Antibirth IFC Midnight
Director: Danny Perez
Screenplay: Danny Perez
Starring: Natasha Lyonne, Chloë Sevigny, Mark Webber, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, Meg Tilly and Neville Edwards
Not rated / 1 hour, 34 minutes / 1.85:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
If Antibirth weren't so ineptly made, I would have really liked it. How's that for a backhanded compliment.
This is a movie that tragically wastes three things:
1) A fantastic lead performance by Natasha Lyonne, a sharp and sardonic expansion of the singular on-screen persona she's collectively cultivated over the last two decades.
2) Some genuinely great practical effects and prosthetic work, primarily in a climactic payoff that's as gloriously, disgustingly fleshy as it is visually alienating - an image of beautiful revulsion brought to life by makeup and effects craftspeople that deserve an ovation.
3) A punchline so spectacular - and which pays off Lyonne's performance so well - that I desperately wish it were attached to a movie that deserves it.
Alas, those three things stand out even more than they would anyway, elevating a bad film that's too sloppily arranged to make even the hallucinatory kind of sense it's trying to make. It's easy to get the feeling that it's trying too hard to be a midnight movie. You can practically hear the filmmakers begging for a cult audience to embrace it. But cult status would be selling the film's ideas short. They're too good to be employed with such antipathy, as if they're only meant to be enjoyed or experienced ironically. The movie should be a lot better than it pretends it wants to be.
Involuntary Pregnancy is a horror subgenre all its own, and this one attacks the premise with a loopy conspiratorial bite and a pronounced rejection of sentimentality or character growth. The subject/victim/reluctant-mother-to-be is Lou (Lyonne), who shows so little care for her own health and body that an apparent pregnancy seems like just another aggravating daily ailment. Aches and pains. Hangovers and sore throats. Unwanted pregnancies of possibly inhuman origin. Y'know, the usual - anything that'll pass as a reason to call in sick, or to lay around the house all day.
What's great about the way the film wants to operate, and one of the reasons Lyonne's casting is so essential, is that Lou is a true antihero, fitting the most accurate sense of the term. She does not have heroic qualities, nor does she ever intend to. She simply is, and in this case she simply is in an unexpectedly horrifying situation, about which she is confused, apathetic and adaptable in equal measure. This seems to be how she is with everything that comes her way. (I suppose thick-skinned resilience can be a heroic quality, but the character never asks for or requires our admiration.)
She's a hard-partying, perpetually wasted burnout who unapologetically continues being a hard-partying, perpetually wasted burnout even as the shape of her belly makes her situation - hard as it may be for her to believe - rather hard to ignore. She may well be, at least if her nightmares and the ramblings of a mysterious local woman (Meg Tilly) are to be believed, the victim of conspiratorial forces far beyond her comprehension ... and yet she's no resistance fighter. She has no righteous indignation. Her mutant pregnancy is a hassle and she wants it gone, so she can continue living the life she's settled into. That her body is, on a daily basis, the least of her worries is one of the film's running jokes. It's not just the weed and the coke and the booze and the cigs, but junk food, too; sweets, pizza, fast food, and soda by the 2-liter. (If nothing else, it makes for a clever twist on the standard "pregnancy cravings" cliches.)
Lyonne's presence evinces intelligence and emotional toughness, and her performance is as brash yet subtly vulnerable as we've come to expect. Lou doesn't care if we like her or not. And she doesn't much care what anyone else around has in mind for her - not occasional best friend Sadie (Chloë Sevigny); not Sadie's kinda-sorta boyfriend Gabriel (Mark Webber), whose drug-dealing business is more odious and, shall we say, experimental than it appears to be; not even Lorna, the woman who claims to have been put through what Lou is experiencing and is prepared to blow the lid off of everything.
The image of a slothful Lou miserably lounging around her trailer - stomach bulging in proud mockery - is one of the film's most effective, in large part because it's one of the few that registers with any kind of meaning. Writer/director Danny Perez gives us too many scenes that he seems unsure what to do with - perfunctory moments instead of visceral images, shot like a network sitcom one scene and a basic indie thriller (albeit an aggressively colorful one) the next. Added together, they make for a clumsy narrative … or, better yet, a clumsy attempt to turn this into a structured narrative at all. A premise like this, especially with a performance like Lyonne's anchoring it, operates on psychological and corporeal levels. Imposing story beats on it the way Perez does seems like a crutch. He and editor Aden Bahadori do seem to instinctively understand that, and even try to work against it at times. They stitch the film together with a sense of manic violence, interrupting the story's banalities with a hodgepodge of hallucinatory flashes and fragments. But most of that comes across like stagy, late-night-TV versions of nightmare imagery instead of anything genuinely haunting or bizarre.
It's frustrating enough that Antibirth never really figures out what to do with itself - but more frustrating still that it can't do justice to the many things it has going for it already. A standout lead performance, let down by a script unable to support it. An acerbic sense of humor that only fully reveals itself when it's too late. An imaginatively conceived body-horror premise, wasted by filmmakers too cautious and derivative in their approach to ever transform it into the savage, psycho-corporal experience it wants to be. There's a lot to work with here; Perez is just too clumsy to figure out how.