The elements of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein are so timeless and malleable that they've inspired two artistically successful yet very different variations this year. A couple of months after the release of Bomani J. Story's The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster comes director and co-writer Laura Moss' Birth/Rebirth, an even more rewarding take on Shelley's tale of scientific hubris. It's a twisted story about motherhood, with two seemingly opposite protagonists who are both invested in the resurrection of a little girl. Marin Ireland and Judy Reyes complement each other perfectly as women whose single-minded devotion to their daring experiment has devastating consequences.
Birth/Rebirth introduces the two characters in an effective sequence that cross-cuts between the two to show their divergent personalities and interests. Both work in the same Bronx hospital, but pathologist Rose (Ireland) toils mostly alone in the morgue, dispassionately cutting into cadavers and sneaking organs home in a giant suitcase to use for her own purposes. Nurse Celie (Reyes) works in the maternity ward, providing soothing reassurance to anxious mothers-to-be and serving as an advocate when insensitive male doctors impatiently order unnecessary procedures.
Their home lives provide stark contrasts as well. Rose heads to a bar where she bluntly sexually propositions a man who hits on her, then collects his sperm and blood as mechanically as she cuts into corpses. Celie picks up her exuberant six-year-old daughter Lila (A.J. Lister) from the hospital daycare and listens to her recount every detail about her day. There's no reason these two women would ever become friends, but Birth/Rebirth soon brings them together following a horrible tragedy.
Moss builds a sense of dread as a rushed Celie leaves a sick Lila with a neighbor so that she can make it to her hospital shift on time. Lila just has a fever at first, but something is clearly wrong, and it's heartbreaking when Celie, whose phone hasn't been working, suddenly learns that her daughter has died of bacterial meningitis. When Lila's body shows up in the morgue, Rose sees it as an opportunity to further her research, but Celie isn't placated by the bureaucratic cover-up that prevents her from claiming her daughter's body. She tracks Rose to her apartment, where Lila is hooked up to a ventilator, seemingly still alive.
Except Lila isn't exactly alive, not even in the way that Frankenstein's monster was alive. She's getting there, though, and Celie immediately shifts into protective-mother mode, insisting that she move in with Rose and help take care of Lila. The two make for an endearingly odd couple, immediately settling into a routine like longtime spouses, even though their mundane chatter involves procuring organs and medical equipment without being detected. Birth/Rebirth is often gruesome, especially as Rose and Celie go to increasingly desperate lengths to continue Lila's resurrection, but Moss keeps a morbid sense of humor throughout.
Birth/Rebirth is still full of nasty, brutal developments, and Moss doesn't hold back on the horrors of what Rose and Celie are doing. As Lila starts to revive further, she doesn't turn into the kind of homicidal monster familiar from other horror movies about resurrecting the dead, but she's not really herself, either. Lister gives an impressive performance as the confused, almost animalistic version of Lila, whose handful of missing teeth give her an especially wild look. The monster in Shelley's story is a tragic figure, and Lila is, too, even more so for how emotionally invested Celie is in getting her daughter back to normal.
Reyes, who played a nurse for eight seasons on Scrubs, brings maternal warmth and protectiveness to Celie, who presents herself as more compassionate than the cold, calculating Rose, but isn't above hurting others in order to save her daughter. "Dignity and motherhood don't always line up," she tells one of her pregnant patients, and she sacrifices more dignity than most mothers to do everything for Lila. Rose sacrifices, too, impregnating herself over and over so that she can self-abort and harvest the fetal tissue needed for the serum that keeps Lila alive. It's a blunt but effective contrast between the two modes of motherhood.
The underrated Ireland, who's been excellent in horror movies like The Dark and the Wicked and The Empty Man, is fascinating as Rose, who at first, seems to be a one-dimensional unfeeling clinician before revealing layers of ambition and suffering. She opens up to Celie without losing her defensive shield, and the two characters meet each other in a rewarding middle ground.
Birth/Rebirth is more of a dark drama than a horror movie. It focuses on the characters' journeys rather than a series of shocking set pieces. When the horror arrives, though, it's all the more powerful because the audience understands everything at stake. The Frankenstein story is about the human need to take control over life itself, and both Shelley and Moss know that that's fundamentally impossible. The tragedy and power of Birth/Rebirth lies in how much its characters will sacrifice in pursuit of that impossible goal.
Birth/Rebirth opens Friday, August 18, in select theaters.