Film Review – False Positive
Having a child can be a beautiful experience, but it can also be a terrifying, stressful, and in the worst cases, dangerous. Obviously, this rings especially true for expectant mothers. They are the ones who must bear the responsibility of carrying a life inside of them for nine months. They are the ones who watch their bodies change and live through the physical and emotional strain. They put their faith in the expertise of doctors, midwives, and other healthcare professionals – many of whom are complete strangers. Anyone who thinks that having a child is a smooth ride have probably never had one to begin with.
False Positive (2021) examines this very vulnerable time in a woman’s life and frames it within a horror/thriller plot. Lucy (Ilana Glazer) and Adrian (Justin Theroux) are a married couple who have been trying to have a baby. After failing several times, they decide to visit Dr. Hindle (Pierce Brosnan), an in-demand fertility specialist. Dr. Hindle is a close friend of Adrian’s and was his med school professor, which makes it easy for them to jump to the front of the line. The operation goes smoothly, and Lucy – to her joy – becomes pregnant. But soon after the announcement, Lucy starts suspecting something isn’t right. She starts sensing that the pregnancy isn’t going as it should, and those that she’s supposed to trust may not be telling her the truth.
Directed by John Lee (who co-writes with Ilana Glazer), the film highlights the underlying misogyny that comes with being pregnant. Once Lucy tests positive, she is immediately put under the influence of others who think they know what’s best for her. She brings up her worries to Dr. Hindle, Adrian, and her pregnancy support group, all of whom brush it off as “Mommy Brain.” Lucy works at an advertising company, and while her coworkers congratulate her for being pregnant, they’re just as willing to hand her a list of lunch orders as though she were a lower-level intern. Her concerns for her health and the health of the baby go ignored – she feels trapped within a shrinking metaphorical bubble.
For the first two-thirds of False Positive, John Lee’s direction (and Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography) amplify Lucy’s growing paranoia. The set design and art direction place the characters in sterile, cold environments. From Dr. Hindle’s office to Lucy and Adrian’s home, everything has a plain, detached style. Nothing is warm and inviting, each location feels as though it were constructed out of linoleum. White and gray walls act as barriers, adding to the sense of claustrophobia. Often, Lee will insert a dream sequence in which Lucy’s fear and anxiety will play out in extreme ways. It’s here where Lee will contrast the white and greys with a splash of color – usually red.
The performances are finely tuned to give off unspoken motivations. Ilana Glazer is very good as the protagonist, trying to solve a mystery she can’t necessarily put into words. Interestingly, Glazer (at the time of this writing) is pregnant in real life. It would be fascinating to see what her experience is like now compared to how it was presented here. Justin Theroux exudes a physicality that helps Adrian exert his influence on Lucy. When Adrian gives Lucy a bracelet as a gift, the symbolism is apparent – he is trying to lock her down. Pierce Brosnan utilizes the same smooth confidence he brought to James Bond here. With his calming voice, Dr. Hindle balances fatherly reassurance with an undercurrent of menace. The operation scenes play like a kind of theater, with Dr. Hindle’s right hand assistant (Gretchen Mol) handing over operating tools with the passive expression of a Stepford Wife.
All the elements that work through the first two thirds are the very things that cause the narrative to fall apart in the later stages. It’s at this section where Lucy’s visions start getting the best of her. The writing and direction – which were tight and efficient up to this point – start to unravel and play very loose. The rug is pulled out from underneath us without warning, tossing in plot twists that don’t really make much sense. Maybe that’s part of the point, as Lucy’s pre-conceived notions abandon her. But the execution felt messy, as though the story meandered toward a conclusion instead of ending on an exclamation point. The tone dives headfirst into horrific territory. Many will see this and immediately find parallels to Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and those comparisons are justified. But where that film ended on a strong note this simply sputtered out – relying on dream imagery that aims to shock instead of provoke.
There is a lot to like with False Positive. The topic is important and relevant, the acting all around was strong, and for the majority of the runtime the central mystery was captivating. While the ending put me off, I was fully drawn in leading up to it. If the film gets people talking about pregnancy and the gender dynamics that come with it, then perhaps it did exactly what it was meant to do.