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Ilana Glazer’s False Positive Is a Chilling Depiction of the Bloody Battle Over Women’s Bodies

3/5 stars.

Ilana Glazer as Lucy giving birth in False Positive.

A hip, modern pregnancy horror, Ilana Glazer’s False Positive takes the notion of women’s bodies as a political battleground to the next, chilling level.

Presented at Tribeca Film Festival, the premise of the film, directed by John Lee and co-written by Lee and star Ilana Glazer, is as relevant as ever. Mere days after Britney Spears testified on her conservatorship, saying that she is being prevented from having her birth control device removed in order to have another baby, the claims made over a woman’s body are more than just dystopian fiction.

The terror lies beneath the everyday surface, in how easy it is for the female body and its rights to be dismissed and renegotiated by others within a patriarchal system. Several movies have effectively portrayed this ceaseless negotiation over the last few years, including the recent, nerve-wracking Never Rarely Sometimes Always, focusing on a Pennsylvania teenager who decides to terminate an unplanned pregnancy.

False Positive, as its title suggests, explores a different area of reproductive rights, zeroing in on a couple having trouble conceiving. Glazer reunites with Lee, one of the directors of painfully funny series Broad City that she co-created with Abbi Jacobson. But those approaching False Positive hoping to find echoes of that slapstick comedy are in for a sobering watch.

The film’s opening sequence is straight out of a female-fronted horror canon we know and love. The camera reveals an exhausted, covered-in-blood Glazer dragging herself through the neon-lit streets of NYC. As the movie flashes back in time, this first scene suggests that what viewers are about to witness will be nothing short of horrifying. Whether False Positive fulfills that spine-chilling promise is another matter.

Glazer plays Lucy, a woman going the extra mile to have a baby with her husband Adrian (Justin Theroux). She has given up alcohol, for one, but nothing she does seems to work towards her goal. After two years of unsuccessful attempts, Adrian convinces her to see his old med school professor, fertility doctor Dr. John Hindle.

Portrayed by a Pierce Brosnan who is clearly having the time of his life in the role, this eerily charming physician is the emperor of a Stepford-style women’s clinic. Gretchen Mol brilliantly helms Hindle’s army of pink-clad, disturbingly devoted assistants as Nurse Dawn. They all have the couple’s best interest at heart, they assure, with Hindle vowing to help them thanks to a state-of-the-art treatment he has developed. And, just like that, Lucy is pregnant—or rather, they are pregnant, Adrian doesn’t fail to point out.

Yet, pregnancy, as Sophia Bush’s fellow mom-to-be character puts it, is “no joke.” Lucy’s, particularly, feels off in more ways than one. As the protagonist’s paranoia increases, her concerns are promptly brushed off as “mommy brain.” This is but the beginning of a gaslighting spiral leading Lucy and the audience to question everything and everyone, including herself.

If this rings a bell for viewers, it’s because False Positive isn’t subtle in drawing inspiration from other cinematic tales. The film—from a story by author Alissa Nutting, who adapted her novel Made for Love into the HBO Max series of the same name—grapples with the legacy of problematic classics such as Rosemary’s Baby. Directed by convicted sex offender Roman Polanski, the 1968 movie was a masterful take on supernatural pregnancy horror. It also includes gross violations of consent which are never addressed within the movie.

A subdued, fawn-eyed protagonist, Rosemary (Mia Farrow), is blindsided upon finding out her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) has raped her in her sleep. He justifies the assault because they had agreed on trying for a baby that night. Of course, it was not Rosemary’s husband who raped her while she was unconscious, but someone (something?) far more sinister. Nonetheless, what is shocking is that the film frames Guy’s casual rationale as within the realm of acceptability.

False Positive wrestles with that tolerance, and its straightforwardness about consent is one of its merits. After the film’s big, predictable twist, Lucy isn’t afraid to give a name to what she has been put through by Dr. Hindle: rape is the word.

A feminist, progressive take on the motherhood-gone-awry trope, False Positive struggles to maintain the tone throughout its 92-minute runtime. Ahead of its third act, the film’s feminist commentary is disappointingly mild. Like Rosemary, Lucy lets others steer her, from Adrian, a shady character nobody would ever trust for a second, and Dr. Hindle to her boss and colleagues, hilariously obsessed with getting lunch at Dig Inn. No matter how good she is at her marketing job, Lucy is expected to take the all-male staff lunch orders. The way the gag pans out, day after day, and how Lucy complies with it without turning it into an overtly comedic opportunity feels like a huge miss to make a stronger point.

And it’s not the only lackluster element. Pawel Pogorzelski’s stylish cinematography amps up the sense of distrust by incorporating reflections and mirrors. The film, however, never fully resolves Lucy’s visions, leaving loose threads hanging well after the finale. An example of this is Lucy’s sense of entitlement and privilege when she goes to a renowned doula, Grace Singleton (Zainab Nah), for a second opinion. The lead’s fascinations with the magical Black midwife tapping into traditional remedies is only briefly touched upon, the racism behind it never spelled out.

Glazer is almost uncomfortable as Lucy, progressively infusing the character with pure rage. Hers is a restrained performance that finally, luckily, explodes in the last segment. The third act is by far the movie’s most compelling part, delivering sparse glimpses of that genuine horror teased in the intro.

Overall, False Positive challenges the idea of pregnancy as a beautiful, smooth process. It also takes aim at the mommy brain myth, often used to diminish women going through what is quite possibly one of the scariest experiences of their lives—an experience that doctors, particularly male doctors, claim to understand better than their patients.

The film’s similarity to Rosemary’s Baby is too blatant to think of it as a truly original story. Still, it’s commendable that False Positive departs from that in one crucial way. Lucy isn’t fighting a cult worshipping a supernatural entity. It’s ordinary abusers she’s out to take, and the whole system that is designed to enable them. With someone very human to call the shots on her body, who needs to fear the devil?

False Positive is available to stream on Hulu today.

(featured image: Hulu)

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Stefania Sarrubba is an Arts and Culture journalist based in London. When she is not adding movies she will probably never see to her infinite watchlist, she likes spotting urban foxes, making plans and engaging in passionate conversations about women’s rights. Read her annoying tweets on @freckledvixen.