This odd little family tale of two respected, married scientists, Ben Morin (Matthew Goode) and Catherine Morin (Toni Collette), is essentially an exercise in figuring out who among the characters you hate the most, and I don’t say that as a criticism of the performances or writing.
Set primarily in 1977, Birthmarked begins with the researchers proposing to fellow scientist Gertz (Michael Smiley), who’s looking for a grand experiment to fund, that they raise their biological son Luke and two adopted children, Maya and Maurice (all of whom are roughly the same age) in unique ways to prove that biology plays less of a role than nurturing in what pursuits children go into later in life.
Maurice’s biological parents have anger issues, so the Morins attempt to raise him as a pacifist; Maya’s family are “feebleminded,” so they raise her to be brainy; and their own son, who stems from a long line of successful scientists on his father’s side, they raise to be a gifted artist. I’m fairly certain Birthmarked is meant to be a dark-ish comedy, as none of the children excel in the fields the parents want them to. It’s a failure that could not only mean the end of the experiment, but might result in them actually owing Gertz over $1 million that he invested in the children’s upbringing. The pressure put on the Morins drives Catherine to demand they take a break from the research and testing to give herself and the kids a break, but Ben is afraid of being perceived as the first failure in his family.
In a perfect version of this film, director Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais (Whitewash) might have told this story from the perspective of the children being manipulated and at times put through outlandish paces. Instead, he forces us to endure the unpleasant company of the Morins, who are ethically questionable on their best days—utterly obnoxious and annoying the rest of the time. When Gertz pops in occasionally for progress reports (with the delightful assistant Mrs. Tridek, played by Fionnula Flanagan), things around the isolated house spring to life and actually result in a few laughs.
But most of the film is spent feeling bad for the kids and hating their morally bankrupt parents. Another sequence in which a child psychologist friend (Suzanne Clément) of Catherine’s drops in also gives the kids an opportunity to shine and actually enjoy the company of an outsider. Most of the time, they must be clandestine in their pursuit of fun and happiness, and when they are discovered doing anything outside of their assigned disciplines, the parents pull on their invisible leashes and get them right back on track.
The third act involves the kids inevitably finding out the truth as the funding is pulled, and the Morins finding the true value of family, perhaps too late. If you’re in any way on board with Birthmarked going into this final section, you’ll probably throw up your hands in frustration with the way things wrap up—more with a whimper than a pointed statement about the family dynamic or parenthood in general. If you felt like twisting your neck in a painful fashion, you can maybe see a message about all parents attempting to mold their kids in some way, but even that feels like a stretch. This is a dumb movie about people who are allegedly smart, and it was an aggravating experience to watch.
The film opens Cinemas Entertainment 10, 3330 W Roosevelt Rd, Chicago.