Mommy Brain (Review: False Positive)
False Positive is streaming on Hulu
In 2016, the World Health Organization estimated that around 830 women die on a daily basis due to complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. If you read that number and were floored by the lethal math on display, it’s probably because you’re a man. The fact of the matter is, the process of pregnancy has always been tied up with risk. Three hundred years ago, along with the distressingly normal dangers associated with birth, a pregnant woman had to contend with barbaric practices that barely met the definition of medical, as well as an insanely misogynistic society that viewed them as little more than baby factories.*
You would expect that since we have much improved medical technology and are an allegedly evolved society these days, that conception/pregnancy/birth is far easier, right? No, there is just a new crop of problems. How does pregnancy affect a woman’s career? What impact does health insurance, or a lack thereof, have on the process?** How do social and psychological stressors that didn’t exist in 1721 change things for pregnant women in 2021?
There’s a story we tell ourselves these days that goes like this — conception should be easy. During your pregnancy, you’ll glow. During birth, you’ll experience a spiritual epiphany that will put you in touch with the entirety of your female lineage. After birth, you’ll effortlessly bond with your physically, mentally, and morally perfect baby, and a computer file named “MOTHERHOOD.EXE” will immediately download into your prefrontal cortex, providing you with all the information you’ll need in your journey. When you go onto Instagram and see stories of other women living in maternal bliss, you’ll get it, because you’ll be living that way, too.
Only it’s not like that. It’s never been like that. It can be a horror show, one that some women escape by the skin of their teeth. Others aren’t so lucky. Conception and pregnancy are ideal grist for horror, where the physical and the psychological collide, often with visceral results. While I don’t think the new horror film False Positive sticks the landing, it leaves a blood-soaked impact just the same.
They say women can have it all, and Lucy (Ilana Glazer) is taking her shot at making “it” a reality. She’s a rising star at her Manhattan marketing firm. Her supervisor Greg (Josh Hamilton) believes in her — despite his habit of making her take lunch orders for the office. Her husband Adrian (Justin Theroux) is kind, supportive, and works as a successful physician. The two of them can afford a New York apartment, so everything seems to be going their way. Almost.
You see, Lucy and Adrian have been trying to conceive for a while now. It’s not going well, and none of the modifications to diet, exercise, or lifestyle have helped them to expand their family. They only have one chance left, and it’s at the office of Dr. John Hindle (Pierce Brosnan). He’s a fertility doctor, perhaps the fertility doctor, and anxious couples join endless waitlists for just a few minutes of his time and the possibility of a miracle.
Adrian, however, was one of Dr. Hindle’s students. His protege, more precisely. That connection whisks Lucy and Adrian into the office and past the desk of the watchful Nurse Dawn (Gretchen Mol). That connection facilitates treatment, and Dr. Hindle breezily assures Lucy that her chances of getting pregnant under his care are, in fact, excellent.
It turns out the good doctor was right, and Lucy finds herself pregnant with three fetuses — twin boys and a girl. Due to complications, the choice of selective reduction must be made. Should Lucy keep the twin boys or the girl? That’s only the beginning, and soon Lucy begins to believe that something else is happening. With all the bizarre dreams, the hallucinations, and the nagging feeling that something isn’t right, is Lucy simply afflicted by “mommy brain,” as she’s so often told? Or is everyone, including Adrian, gaslighting her for their own sinister purposes?
During the first few seconds of False Positive’s runtime, I spied the production company logo of A24. At that moment, I knew I would be in for nightmarish physical violence, relentless emotional violence, and filmmaking that would be willing to go to places that “regular” studio movies fear to tread. A24 is truly committed to the concept of independent cinema, and when they produce horror, they bring us quality fare such as The Witch, Hereditary, and the beloved by me Green Room. To put it plainly, A24 doesn’t screw around.***
False Positive doesn’t screw around either. Director John Lee is determined to put viewers squarely into Lucy’s head. What other characters patronizingly refer to as “mommy brain” is a series of bizarre dreams and unsettling hallucinations, and it becomes increasingly difficult to tell what’s real. Lee and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski create a number of alarming moments that effectively show us how untethered Lucy feels about her birth journey. Perhaps the strongest moments take place at the Hindle Clinic, and during invasive procedures, it feels like everyone is in on a private joke, except for Lucy. Which is not far from the truth.
The strongest aspect of the screenplay, written by Ilena Glazer and John Lee, is the subtle (and not so subtle) feeling of gaslighting that Lucy experiences. She’s repeatedly told she’s glowing, that pregnancy is a joyful experience. The first time Adrian says that “we are pregnant,” it’s endearing in a dumb way. By the tenth time, it’s maddening, and it becomes one more load on Lucy’s back that she’s forced to carry. Glazer and Lee have written a script that bursts with ideas. I love their ambition, but sometimes it makes the end result feel a bit unfocused. For instance, a subplot involving Grace Singleton (Zainab Jah), a Black midwife whom Lucy becomes fascinated by, raises interesting questions about passive racism practiced by clueless white people. The problem is, those interesting questions have to compete with the many, many other interesting questions the screenplay raises. It’s a great problem to have; I just wished the script had drilled down on a few core concepts.
There are a number of good performances in the cast, all of them in sync and complementing each other nicely. Ilana Glazer is the strong center of the film. She’s natural, honest, and subtle as her derangement takes hold of her. I liked Justin Theroux’s quietly slimy Adrian, and I really liked Pierce Brosnan as Dr. Hindle. It’s been a bunch of years since Brosnan played James Bond, and I think after putting away the tux, he’s done some of his best work. Here, Brosnan is very still and very controlled, showing us the serene confidence shared by medical professionals and cult leaders. Perhaps the MVP of the cast is Gretchen Mol as Hindle’s henchwoman, Nurse Dawn. She wields passive aggression as a weapon, and her eyes gleam with fanaticism, especially when Dr. Hindle is challenged.
There’s a sizable challenge at work when we talk about False Positive. By and large, it’s a very good film, and more often than not it succeeds in its ambitions with style and fearsome intelligence. However, it’s not a “fun” horror movie per se, with jump scares and an entertaining adrenaline rush. I can’t imagine anyone who’s experienced pregnancy would want to take on this level of anxiety. False Positive is aggressively unpleasant, a film designed to cut its way under the skin.
*Good thing we’ve moved beyond that, right?
Is this thing on?
**You’d think in a country that preaches about the sanctity of human life and the power of family values, there would be more programs in place to help pregnant women and new moms. Nope! Instead, in the grand tradition of rugged self-sufficiency, if you’re pregnant, you’re on your own.
***It bears mentioning that a great deal of A24’s horror output is viewed as “elevated horror,” implying that it’s of a more distinguished pedigree than the latest in The Purge franchise. I don’t believe in the concept of elevated horror, because at the end of the day, it’s simply a different flavor. Wagyu beef isn’t the superior choice in all instances, because sometimes a solid bacon cheeseburger is what we’re after.