Film

Review: False Positive Uses Horror and Social Commentary to Explore Fertility, Pregnancy and Female Agency

If you’re looking for a comedic partnership team who, between the two of them, have worked on such shows as Wonder Showzen, Inside Amy Schumer, The Heart, She Holler, and, not surprisingly, Broad City, performer Ilana Glazer and director John Lee (Pee-wee’s Big Holiday) seem like a great pairing to garner some chuckles. However, one might not expect them to write a film like False Positive, which examines fertility clinics, the pressure put on women to have babies, and the pressure women put on themselves to give up a certain agency over their bodies when fertility issues occur. And if I never hear the term “mommy brain” again, that’ll be okay by me.

False Positive

Image courtesy of Hulu

Devised as more of a Rosemary’s Baby-style horror film, False Positive is about the pregnancy struggles of a young couple—ad agency rep Lucy (Glazer) and her doctor husband Adrian (Justin Theroux). After a couple of years of trying the old-fashioned way, they turn to one of Adrian’s old teachers and family friend Dr. John Hindle (Pierce Brosnan), who runs a high-end fertility clinic with a years-long waiting list (naturally, the couple is allowed in right away). The clinic is practically space-age in design and features head nurse Dawn (Gretchen Mol), who is more cruise director than health professional. The couple get pregnant after the first treatment—very pregnant, in fact, with a pair of twin boys and a solo girl. In order to increase the chances of a healthy birth, Hindle asks Lucy to choose the twins or the girl to be “selectively reduced” from her body, and this is the moment in the movie where things begin to get icky for Lucy.

We feel the small but noticeable pressures put on her by her husband, her doctor, and her friends about this and virtually every other choice she must make during her pregnancy, and she begins to suspect that the doctor especially has ulterior motives for his method of treating her. There’s an arrogance and superiority to him that is beautifully realized by Brosnan, which is typified during a speech he gives at an awards dinner (a speech that, to my mind at least, gives away one of the film’s twists). There’s even a way that Lee focuses on how Hindle lubes up his instruments that will make your skin crawl. It’s around this time that Lucy also becomes obsessed with Grace Singleton (Zainab Jah), a midwife in town who offers a respite from doctors who think they know a woman’s body and pregnancy better than the women themselves do. She’s almost too good to be true during their first meeting, and before long, Lucy tells Adrian she’d rather have the baby with Grace than Hindle. He pushes back but ultimately agrees.

We also get a glimpse at Lucy’s work life at the agency (led by Josh Hamilton’s Greg), where she is a rising star on the verge of heading up her own A-list client. She’s clearly nervous about letting her all-male coworkers know about her pregnancy, but they all seem supportive (at first) when she finally does tell them. She also joins a “mommy group” specifically for women who used fertility doctors, and the stories are both comforting to Lucy and a bit unnerving to hear how desperate some of these women became; they all seem beyond impressed with her landing an appointment with Hindle. One of the women is Corgan (Sophia Bush), who becomes a close confidante until Grace becomes exceedingly paranoid about everyone around her seemingly plotting against her for reasons unknown. Is she suffering from “mommy brain,” as some suggest, or is everyone working with Hindle on something even Lucy doesn’t suspect?

Although Jordan Peele didn’t invent the idea of a horror film with a message about some important societal issue, he did popularize it recently with Get Out in a way that we’re starting to see his influence spread exponentially. I think it’s fair to say that False Positive fits squarely into that type of horror entertainment. Glazer and Lee have a viewpoint on fertility doctors and on how pregnant women are viewed and treated that is important and biting at times. But being comedy creators first, there are also moments of outrageous behavior or bizarre dialogue that add a freakish quality to the proceedings in ways that threaten to derail things but never quite do.

I’m not sure the ending quite works or makes sense, and there are moments where we aren’t quite clear if Lucy is experiencing what we’re seeing or if she’s under the influence of some mental breakdown or chemical alteration, but Glazer’s nuanced performance is the glue that keeps the movie together. Lucy’s main objective is clearly to be sweet and agreeable, and when anything threatens that balance of how she’s been trained to behave, it’s jarring to her and the audience, and Glazer captures that shift perfectly. Despite some of its flaws (the reveals mostly land with a thud), False Positive is a worthy and necessary point of view without feeling like work for its audience. It works far better as behavioral study of the unsavory practice of baby worship—or more specifically, pregnancy worship—and how men are just as or more guilty of it as women are so often portrayed as being.

The film is now streaming on Hulu.

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