Panic Fest 2023: Birth/Rebirth is a Frankenstein story for a post-Dobbs world

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Courtesy IFC Films

This story is part of our coverage of Panic Fest 2023Read more from our film team here.

Birth/Rebirth opens with a literal shock to the system. We see a woman being rushed to the hospital in the back of an ambulance, having just had her heart restarted by a defibrillator. She’s barely responsive. She’s also pregnant. In the ER, the scene switches to the unnamed woman’s perspective as a nurse leans in and tells her to focus. “Your baby’s gonna be okay,” the nurse tells the woman. “But what about me?” the woman feebly asks in response. The baby survives. The mother does not.

The dead woman and her premature infant will figure back into the story eventually. For most of Laura Moss’ fascinating Frankenstein retelling, however, the narrative weight is on the tension in that question and its implied push-pull between the equally valid needs of parents and their offspring. Birth/Rebirth is a story about science playing the realm of God, sure. On a deeper level, however, Moss’ whip-smart horror film—part of the programming at this weekend’s Panic Fest—explores the social and emotional facets of pregnancy and parenting a young child.

Following that shocking opening, the film introduces us to two women who work at the hospital where she died. Celia (Judy Reyes) is a maternity ward nurse and a single mom with a six-year-old daughter, Lila (A.J. Lister). Pathologist Rose (Marin Ireland) is passionate about science but terrible with people. The two women are thrown together after Lila dies suddenly, and a heartbroken Celia discovers Rose is lying about what happened to Lila’s body after receiving it in her lab. 

Rose is, in fact, using Lila as part of an ongoing reanimation experiment. Using an infusion of stem cells taken from her own fetal tissue, Rose is able to bring Lila back to life. However, the resurrected child has needs Rose can’t take care of on her own. When Celia learns what’s happened, she devotes herself to Lila’s care at any cost. She takes extra shifts at the hospital to steal supplies and moves into Rose’s apartment, where Lila lies on a bed hooked up to countless monitors and tubes.

Reyes and Ireland make a great odd-couple pairing, quickly moving from distrustful to cautiously cooperative to building a dedicated partnership. Reyes’ Celia is the compassionate (if deeply ethically compromised) heart, Ireland’s Rose the coldly calculating, brilliant brain. These are the meatiest roles the actresses—both long-time familiar supporting faces in film and TV—have had in a long time. They attack them with impressive commitment and empathy, bouncing well off each other as their identities slowly shift the longer Lila is in their care and the more obstacles arise.

Throughout, director and co-writer Moss makes a thorough study of the pressures of motherhood. Moss leaves a trail of breadcrumbs cluing us into the ever-present blurry line between maternal desire and outward social pressure to have a kid, especially as women age into the phase of “geriatric pregnancy,” as if the ability to give birth determines someone’s entire value (Moss is nonbinary, which surely influences their perspective here). It’s there in visceral ways, like Rose using placenta from her own failed pregnancies to give new life to Lila; in dramatic ways, like Celia talking about using IVF to conceive her daughter; and in small ways, like the strategically placed copy of Kate Bush’s The Kick Inside in Rose’s vinyl collection.

Throughout there’s that question of “what about me?”—that consideration of individual identity in relation to a helpless child that needs everything done for them. A parent would do anything for their child, but at what point is your own sacrifice too much? What happens when your identity as an individual becomes subsumed by your identity as a parent? And what happens when your identity as a parent is suddenly ripped away? Moss goes so far as to suggest that some sacrifices, done at the expense of personal and mental health, are too much.

Birth/Rebirth opens up a fascinating ethical and philosophical can of worms, its arguments laid out with the grace and precision of a novel. This is the kind of film designed to be considered and discussed after watching it, and thankfully, Moss presents enough possibilities to consider that any conversation you have afterward will be long and fruitful.

This story is part of our coverage of Panic Fest 2023Read more from our film team here.

Categories: Movies