Sundance Review: birth/rebirth Examines Medical Ethics, Mourning and More in Interesting, Scary and Heartfelt Ways

My favorite film from the Midnight selections at Sundance this year is the feature debut of director/co-writer Laura Moss (who penned it with Brendan J. O’Brien), birth/rebirth, a science-fiction/horror work that isn’t meant to be scary in the traditional sense but more horrifying in its implications. Mixing bits of Frankenstein and Re-Animator in some of the most interesting and heartfelt ways I’ve ever seen, the movie involves a maternity nurse named Celie (the fantastic Judy Reyes), who has structured her entire life around her lively, six-year-old daughter, Lila (A.J. Lister). But when Lila dies unexpectedly of a very specific infection, Celie crosses paths with Rose (the equally great Marin Ireland, Hell or High Water, The Dark and the Wicked), a gruff pathologist who works in the hospital morgue and likes it a bit too much.

Celie wants to see her daughter’s body, but Rose says it’s already been sent to the medical examiner. When the ME can’t find Lila, Celie begins to lose her mind and goes to Rose’s apartment seeking answers, only to be confronted with something not just unspeakable but unfathomable: Lila in bed, connected to tubes that appear to be keeping her alive, although still unconscious.

After her initial shock, Celie is able to understand that Rose has developed a formula that can bring the dead back to life (she’s got a pig running around her apartment that is her first successful experiment). Something about the way Lila died and the fact that the girl was an organ donor made her think taking her body for this experiment was a good idea. At first Celie is horrified by the idea, but then her maternal instincts kick in, and she wants to do everything in her power (which mostly requires stealing supplies from the hospital and helping Rose monitor Lila’s condition, which does improve over time). But the secret formula includes bit of amniotic fluid and placenta, which forces Celie to befriend a pregnant woman (Breeda Wool) at the hospital who has had multiple miscarriages so is having extra tests done, with Celie keeping the lion’s share of the fluid.

The horror elements enter the picture as Lila begins to wake up, move around and even communicate. Let’s just say her recovery process is unpredictable, so Rose and Celie trade shifts looking after her 24/7. Once these two women enter into their shaky deal, the film becomes a morality play that asks necessary questions about scientific ethics, parental mourning, and a contemporary understanding of how someone would look past their own personal beliefs and boundaries in order to save a loved one. It’s a fascinating, chilling and complicated story that the leads all sell beautifully, and it won me over me completely on being one of the best horror think pieces I’ve seen in quite some time.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.