The first image of John Lee and Ilana Glazer’s fertility horror film False Positive is a flash-forward. We are clearly witnessing the end of something awful: Glazer staggers down a New York street. Her face is a mask of blood; police lights flicker against her gore-spattered shirt. In her exhaustion, she looks like every thriller’s final girl, but Glazer hasn’t fought her way past zombies or a serial killer. I won’t say whose blood is on her face, yet at various points in the movie, some seemingly feminist guy — a boss, a husband, a doctor — will let his pretense slip. Which one will be the monster? The movie hints that, in some way … they all are.
Glazer plays Lucy, a young woman hoping for a child; a lightly grizzled Justin Theroux plays her husband Adrian, who wants her to visit his mentor, the superstar obstetrician Dr. Hindle (Pierce Brosnan). These two older guys pooh-pooh all Lucy’s worries about IVF with sympathy and confidence, in much the same way her boss Greg (Josh Hamilton) talks supportively about her pregnancy — even as he takes away her marketing campaign. The men smile. The men are clearly lying. The people in her life, including a new friend played by Sophia Bush, laugh at Lucy about “mommy brain,” dismissing her instincts that something somewhere has gone horribly wrong. People keep telling her not to worry in the middle of the biggest event of her life. The men might be gaslighting her — or simply patronizing her. Having a uterus can already be such a goddamned horror show; how can you tell when you’re being paranoid? Lucy’s agency and sanity slip away.
There are echoes of Rosemary’s Baby here — again there’s a cabal, or a delusion of a cabal, making Lucy’s pregnancy happen. There’s a little Carrie mixed in, and Medea, and, for the really scary details, real life. Also, Lucy’s obsessed with Peter Pan, and she wants to name her baby Wendy, so our minds quickly turn to all the ways children can be lost. Despite this promising set of influences, though, False Positive fails to cohere. Glazer and Lee’s script scatters its thematic attention in the last third, which ruptures the movie’s attempt to build dread, and director Lee creates a thin, under-realized world.
The sections that do work are mostly predicted there in that first image. The two main elements of that shot — Glazer’s stunned face and a big shmear of red ooze — are the centerpieces of the movie’s best scenes. False Positive is a horror fantasy about pregnancy, or rather, the way a certain kind of affluent woman gets pregnant. Medicalizing and socially stratifying the process means that a glossy, patient-as-consumer, super-sanitized box tries to contain something that’s essentially fleshy mess and effluvia. False Positive therefore spends a lot of time on the obstetrician’s table, long minutes spent looking at Lucy’s face, or watching with her as a medical team rummages between her legs. In these shots, Glazer’s expression is a shifting landscape, by turns placid, pained, wry, resigned, ecstatic. At other points, the film revels in the bloody, gloppy, stinky part of reproduction. Lucy sees blood everywhere, whether leaching out of a book or pooling between her legs. Her dreams are red, membranous throbs. Blood triggers the filmmakers’ best impulses — whenever the props department reaches for the Karo syrup, things get real.
In other moments, though, the movie can ring false. There’s a lot of wonderfully gross stuff about pregnancy that it shies away from, for instance. (Cut one of the hundred scenes where Lucy stares at herself in the mirror and tell me she has hemorrhoids, you cowards.) And where the pregnancy doesn’t seem totally real, other parts of the world are overtly fake. (Adrian is a doctor who never doctors.) This lack of specificity reaches into the texture of the shots themselves. False Positive does a particularly bad job at making New York seem occupied. The anemic sound design makes every restaurant, every walk through a park, nearly silent. It’s not spooky, unless you are terrified by the aesthetics of student film.
In general, Theroux chooses to play bland, which puts the onus for conveying creepitude on Brosnan, who slithers around the examining room, murmuring about his “warm” hands as he lubricates a speculum. The movie doesn’t bother to hide that he’s a sexist snake — he makes his Stepford-esque nurses wear pink minidresses as if they’re in ’50s pulp novels. We have his number before we even meet him. The movie therefore ping-pongs between anesthetized emptiness and everything-but-the-twirling-mustache hamminess, and it never quite sets up a rhythm between the two.
Still, the ideas that set this game in motion are provocative. The movie’s larger point is that regressive sexism has already breached the Instagram class’s blood-brain barrier — and the fertility race only reveals the extent of the disease. At work, Lucy is trying to sell a product called Wyth, which has no actual form. The movie only lets us see a blur of millennial targeting and self-care vaguery. (This is one of the few places the script shows co-writer Glazer’s Broad City tartness.) Lucy never protests that she, the only woman in the office, always has to order lunch; the other half of her job seems to be adjudicating models’ different types of hotness. Is the pregnancy process stealing something that she’s already begun to give away? Sometimes the monster’s in the mirror.
So the movie, despite its weaknesses, has a heartbeat. It is frank about how frightening it is to ask for men’s help when your body is on the line. It’s clear about the way the patriarchy rubs its warm hands all over women’s health, their work, their sense of self, their sexual autonomy. As horror, judged on my own extremely sensitive scare-o-meter, it barely registered. But that doesn’t mean it won’t freak you out. For instance, when Adrian needs to provide his sperm at the doctor’s office, Lee gives us a glimpse of the porn he watches. The moment is a throwaway, maybe a five-second shot, but it’s important — it’s one of the only times Lucy is not in the room. Most of the movie is about her subjective terrors and fantasies, which slide ambiguously in and out of reality. Here, though, the film shows us something objectively true. When Lucy’s husband wants to get it up, he watches a video of a woman getting choked. When he comes out, he’s gentle and sweet. But we’ve seen the skull beneath the skin.
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