Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Young Lister is a marvel, showing a remarkably sophisticated understanding of what her role requires as Lila, having suffered significant brain damage, gradually begins to require verbal and motor skills." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

By and large, humans are driven by two primary insticts: to survive and prosper as an individual, and to contribute to the survival and prosperity of the species or community, especially by producing or protecting offspring. Those who strongly prioritise one can often find themselves at odds with those who prioritise the other, but Laura Moss’ clever reworking of the Frankenstein myth, which screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival, finds a fascinating mixture of antagonism and cooperation in two characters strongly aligned with the latter instinct – though they have very different way of going about it.

Rose (Marin Ireland) is a stand-offish sort of person, perpetually blunt towards the fellow pathologist with whom she shares her lab, giving the impression that she has no real interest in human connection – and yet she’s passionate about her work. in a stunning early scene, she persuades a man who hits on her in a bar to engage in an act which he thinks is erotic but which has, for her, and entirely different purpose. Since the loss of her mother, and perhaps even before that, Rose has had one purpose: she wants to cure death. To that end, she repeatedly gets pregnant, harvesting the resulting embryonic stem cells. She has a rare blood type, however, and she has yo bide her time to acquire a dead body which is a match. When that happens, nothing will deter her from seizing her chance.

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The body in question belongs to six-year-old Lila (AJ Lister), tragically struck down by viral meningitis. Matters are complicated by the fact that Lila’s mother, Celie (Judy Reyes), is a nurse. Tragically, she happened to be on shift when the child’s fever took a turn for the worse, and was not able to intervene to save her, but she does want to see the body and she does know how the system works. When she discovers that it’s missing, she sets out to track it down. The last thing she expects is to find her little girl alive again.

If you’ve spent any significant amount of time in healthcare spaces, you’ll know that there’s a centuries old rivalry between doctors (who focus on the diagnosis and treatment of disease) and nurses (who focus on the optimisation and maintenance of overall health), with the former tending to disparage the latter. In this situation, however, Celie’s swift and practical interventions make it very clear to Rose that she needs those skills which she might have belittled in the past, because for all her brilliance, she doesn’t know much about how to maintain life. This result is the two women forming a partnership, and it’s the complex relationship between them which drives the rest of the film.

Set mostly in the dingy basement morgue and Rose’s small apartment, which she shares with the pig who was her first successful subject, Birth/Rebirth has a naturally claustrophobic quality which also speaks to the intense focus of each of the women’s lives. The performances are top notch and young Lister is a marvel, showing a remarkably sophisticated understanding of what her role requires as Lila, having suffered significant brain damage, gradually begins to require verbal and motor skills. Through this, viewers will find themselves drawn in, made complicit in the women’s single minded determination to protect that child (and, from Rose’s perspective, the experiment) at any cost.

Mary Shelley, whose own experience of child loss was complicated by the religious beliefs with which she was raised, gave her Victor a very particular set of (admittedly conflicted) priorities. Rose and Celie each bring something different, casting this Promethean feat in a different moral light. Viewers may or may not feel comfortable with that, but it certainly makes for a compelling drama. With our understanding of death now significantly more sophisticated but the essential horror of it undiminished, Birth/Rebirth asks questions which grow ever more pertinent over time.

Reviewed on: 17 Aug 2023
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A single mother and a childless morgue technician are bound together by their relationship to a little girl they have reanimated from the dead.

Director: Laura Moss

Writer: Laura Moss

Starring: Marin Ireland, Judy Reyes, AJ Lister

Year: 2023

Country: US

Streaming on: Shudder

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