On paper, False Positive (2021) had every right to become a modern twist on Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s baby (1968). Stuck in between the ambition to conjure up a dreadful experience of pregnancy, and a semi-empowering tale of motherhood, this film can’t find its own rhythm.
In the era of plummeting childbirth statistics, and with younger generations being scared of parenthood, we observe the growth of medical wonders that make other people’s dreams come true. Throw in the widely disputed bans of abortion, and all the fatal repercussions that come round in the form of protests, and there you have it – pregnancy’s more of a taboo than we think.
Ilana Glazer’s script, based on John Lee and Alissa Nutting’s story, sets out on a voyage to tell a story of a couple that’s been struggling to conceive a child. Pushed to their boundary, Lucy (Ilana Glazer as well) and Adrian (Justin Theroux) decide to seek help in a fertility clinic, operated by Adrian’s long-time friend, Dr. Hindle (Pierce Brosnan).
First act of False Positive (2021) leaves an unnerving impression. John Lee successfully weaves a web of all-too-perfect people, artificial smiles, encouraging words and stories of happiness that paved the clinic’s reputation. The picture’s pretty easy to grasp too. Lucy might have her doubts, however, the grin of Dr. Hindle, as well as the confidence of his right-hand Nurse Dawn (Gretchen Mol), manage to keep Lucy’s instincts sedated even after the surgery.
Yet it’s not long before Lucy’s pregnancy becomes a nightmare. During one of her routine visits, Dr. Hindle explains that there are actually three kids in her tummy, and the couple needs to decide, whether to keep two healthy boys or risk the pregnancy by saving a girl. And for a strange reason, the recommendation sounds to be backed up by more than medicine.
Events described above constitute the set-up, the road to actual scares served by John Lee. Up until the tough choice that needs to be made, False Positive (2021) simmers, and laws of physics indicate that it will need to boil eventually. But before it comes to the film’s shocking, and downright disgusting finale, John Lee and his crew prove that numerous untied ends and half-baked ideas are more infuriating than just one major hiccup along the way.
The core of this film is Ilana Glazer’s performance. Lucy’s alone in copying with the suffocating fear of being a mother. Adrian steps into the shadows, leaving Lucy desperate and dazed. She seeks help among other soon-to-be-mothers, yet that’s just another part of the show that piles up the pregnancy scares. Glazer, for whom this is the first dramatic challenge in a feature film, glows in the spotlight. Lucy covers insecurity under expensive clothes, smiles and witty responses, however, underneath is just pure fright. The actress channels these fears through her eyes, as well as the body language, and that’s essential for a character so heavily defined by her physical state.
Glazer’s strongly supported by the work of Paweł Pogorzelski. His understanding of camerawork as means of evoking unease reaches perfection. One of the early scenes in False Positive (2021) finds Lucy and Adrian in a bathroom, with their mirror reflections creating a particularly creepy visual trick, one that defies regular perception. Pogorzelski experiments with camera angles, and with the solid work on the production design part, John Lee’s film looks pretty astonishing.
But what False Positive (2021) makes up in its visual chutzpah, the film lacks structurally, and often stylistically too.
I was mostly flabbergasted by the degree of False Positive (2021) copying ideas from Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019). In both films, two strong female leads are left to cope with their own troubles alone, despite having men by their side. Yet in the case of Justin Theroux, the manly counterpart has no features whatsoever. While Jack Reynor’s memorable turn in Midsommar (2019) was a full-blown, despiteful a-hole, Theroux remains a bleak tabula rasa. Hence Adrian’s grand reveal makes least sense and has little credibility too. Theroux’s a wildly talented actor, so the blame is nowhere else but in the script that clearly struggled with giving Adrian meaning.
Undisputably, Glazer’s dramatic performance has no balance in Theroux, but there’s also noticeable friction with Brosnan and Mol. Brosnan clearly enjoys the bizarre character of Dr. Hindle, and he makes the most out of it. Dr. Hindle’s soothing, tranquilizing appearance immediately hints as some devilish trickery, yet the jokester’s cloak doesn’t fit the tone developed by John Lee. Gretchen Mol owns her impeccable take on Satan’s little helper too, nonetheless she’s even less of a match for this somehow serious film.
Eventually, there’s a conflict of interests here. False Positive (2021) aims for a subliminal message about the dark side of pregnancy, about the fear that’s not discussed and known enough in a pubic discourse. I truly dig that, and could only wish to see how this film could tell a riveting tale about a cursed pregnancy with its modern indications – the perplexing “mommy brain” issue (often mentioned throughout the film), the lack of control over your own body, and fear of changes, of the unknown.
Unfortunately, these themes are underused, and lacking focus too. The script bounces back and forth, trying to bring in scares and drama in equal measures. That kind of blend works when served with caution, as well as understanding of the true sources of those fears. Glazer divides the story in sequences, fifteen minutes of drama here, five minutes for horror there.
All in all, False Positive (2021) is a mess, bogged down by the urge to keep things spooky, less serious, and over-the-top at the same time. Having the luxury to choose from so many great bits of ideas, John Lee should have opted for a darker, more grounded route, and let the simmering horror grow. In the end, there was a fantastic pregnancy horror movie in False Positive (2021), however it’s been crumpled up in the corner, like a kid on a party that’s too shy to get on the dance floor. We’re left with the confident machos taking over, and you know it – this one shy kid has probably the most unforgettable moves that would make John Travolta tremble. But in False Positive (2021), we just don’t get to see it.
Watched at Tribeca Festival.