Sundance 2023: 'birth/rebirth' Reanimates the Story of 'Frankenstein' in an Exciting New Way Directed by Laura Moss
Starring Marin Ireland, Judy Reyes, A.J. Lister, Breeda Wool
Published Jan 26, 2023Frankenstein author Mary Shelley's life was marred by illness and the deaths of those closest to her, including a miscarriage and the premature deaths of all of her children except one. In a time when female authors wrote almost exclusively about unrequited love, Shelley gave readers a story about profound grief manifesting into a manic obsession with playing god. In her directorial debut, director Laura Moss's birth/rebirth effectively reworks this timeless tale while finding the space to give a voice to Shelley's personal anguish.
The film follows Celie (Judy Reyes), a maternity nurse and single mother to six-year-old Lila (A.J. Lister) struggling to balance her heavy workload with the responsibilities of being a parent. Tragically, one day while Celie is at work without access to her phone, Lila falls ill with bacterial meningitis and dies.
By chance, Celie crosses paths with a pathologist working at the same hospital, Rose (Marin Ireland), whose side research (and obsession) concerns the reanimation of the dead. Before long, Celie and Rose embark on a dark experiment that will push one another to their moral limits.
The opening sequence of birth/rebirth is something straight out of the Cronenberg world, with the body of a naked pregnant woman on a cold slab in the morgue as her organs are unceremoniously removed. Moss doesn't shy away from showing the realities of a surgery ward and uses body horror in a rather exquisite way (as disturbing as that sounds) that never feels grotesque.
Moss, who is also the screenwriter, adapts Frankenstein through a distinctly female lens layered with the complexity of its two leads. Reyes's Celie is a warm presence who turns into a fierce lioness when protecting her child. Ireland's Rose, on the other hand, is cold, socially awkward and pragmatic to a fault. Combined, the two characters cover the thematic bases, resulting in a more well-rounded approach to the story's philosophical issues than if only one "Dr. Frankenstein" existed. Reyes and Ireland convincingly land their roles, and their chemistry as an odd couple is connected with unexpected humour underlying their tension.
For as extraordinary as the circumstances are in birth/rebirth, the film is strangely simple. The questions around morality and themes of life and death are present and clear, but never overbearing.
The one misstep of the film, though, is its flirtation with the horror genre. Rather than leaning into the story's inherent dread, birth/rebirth merely hints at it, as if nodding to the source material. A full-blown horror turn could have brought the story to an entirely different place — but as it is, birth/rebirth works very well as a slow-burning, subtle adaptation of one of literature's most enduring myths.
The 2023 Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19 to 29. Get information about online or in-person screenings at the festival's website. (Retrospecter)