The Shudder original Birth/Rebirth, a horror film that asks the big questions about life and death with a sly grin while taking place largely within the small confines of a single flat, is a prime example of why the Sundance Film Festival’s midnight programming can hold some of the best new works. Birth/Rebirth, writer-director Laura Moss’ feature debut, offers the traditional concept of reanimation a contemporary twist while still bringing us on a well-executed spiral into darkness.
It’s more than a little silly, but it also delves deeply into the understated but nonetheless unnerving moments of gore, becoming bleak as hell by the time it all comes together. By hitting this balance while keeping an eye out for the macabre, the experience proves to be both entertaining and terrifying in its investigation of how far we’ll go for family.
It rips deep into the very fabric of its horrifying little narrative when matched with killer music and two powerful leading performances, just as the protagonists do with the bodies at their disposal.
At the heart of this is the sympathetic Celie (Judy Reyes), who works long hours as a maternity nurse while caring for her own daughter Lila (A.J. Lister) nearly entirely on her own. In the same institution, there is the pathological Rose (Marin Ireland), who works and lives in isolation and has a death fixation. When tragedy strikes, the two strangers, distinguished by contrasting character traits and fields, are quickly brought together.
Celie had to leave a sickly Lila in the care of a neighbour while she was out at work. Everything appeared good with her just getting through another day of patient care before boarding the bus home. However, unbeknownst to her, the 6-year-old quickly deteriorated. Celia found out after the fact that she had died in the hospital.
The world continues to move, but hers has come to a halt as Moss portrays the overpowering way sorrow can take hold by revealing broad views and excruciatingly personal close-ups. Reyes is impressive, demonstrating how dramatically this tragedy has upended Celie’s life in even the slightest of details.
Making matters worse, the bereaved mother is initially unable to claim her daughter’s body as it appears to vanish into thin air immediately after being delivered to Rose. Celia then chooses to accompany the pathologist back to her flat. It is there that she realises Rose has magically brought her daughter back from the brink of death to the world of the living.
While first stunned and amazed by what appears to be a second opportunity, Celia quickly immerses herself in caring for her newly revived daughter. She essentially moves in with Rose, and the two develop a professional relationship that, although centred on a pretty gruelling job, nevertheless has moments of levity.
From the deadpan delivery of Ireland to the way the household space becomes a basic yet ridiculous laboratory, Moss and co-writer Brendan J. O’Brien find lots of beautiful tiny moments of lunacy. It accepts the premise’s silliness while treating the emotional stakes very seriously.
Celia’s elation at seeing her daughter alive quickly turns to anxiety as it becomes evident that the little girl may not even be the same person she once knew. Her body has been restored, but it is unclear how much of her personality remains.
At times, the film makes a bleakly dark joke out of it, such as in one ludicrous sequence involving the turning on and off of a television, but never losing sight of how unsettling it all is. It combines the humorous with the serious, the mirthful and the macabre, to create a distinct wavelength of its own that you can’t help but be caught up in.
Having said that, there is a sensation that the picture is weirdly holding back at times. Some of this is due to the fact that the story is mostly restricted to either the flat or the hospital since the two protagonists must live a lonely life ruled only by secrecy. The idea is that the habit they fall into is bizarre and creepy in equal measure, however there was still a need for something more to break up these patterns.
We get glimpses of how Rose has done this and so much more previously through old videos she recorded of her medical experiments, which are incredibly painful despite being surprisingly short.
It’s reasonable that Celia will attempt to turn away from this, as if to distract herself from the parallels between her increasingly wicked actions to protect her daughter, but there are certain elements that feel a little smoothed over.
Certain moments are sliced a little shallower than one would want. This doesn’t detract too much from the overall experience, but it does leave a lingering vacuum of what could have been if the film had truly embraced some of the darker concepts hiding beneath the surface.
Fortunately, the climax makes up for any possible snags that arise along the way. It throws aside all restraint and lets the characters be sucked in by the darkness in a pretty blatant yet no less terrifying manner. Without ever being overt about it, the film depicts how Celie and Rose’s efforts to keep Lila alive affected them as much as they did her.
Even when the picture goes all out, the character work is subtle enough to get under your skin. The outstanding performances of Reyes and Ireland complement each other brilliantly, pulling back the humanity that their two characters had just tenuously clung to.
Without revealing anything about the exact depths to which the two would go, the drama begins a thrilling yet horrifying free fall from which the characters may not escape uninjured. When it then pulls the ripcord, sending us back down to Earth with the nagging feeling that we might not like what we discover there, the superb final picture and accompanying final sentence provide one more laceration to our very soul.
Birth/Rebirth is a wonderful place to start for anyone looking for horror jewels from the festival since it shreds through flesh and blood to get directly to its terrible, pulsating core.