False Positive is a bizarre watch. Following in the deep, hooved footsteps of Rosemary’s Baby, it’s a film that explores the horrors of pregnancy, gaslighting, and what happens when a mother has choice ripped away from her. Instead of a fragile ingénue in the leading role, False Positive has firecracker Ilana Glazer, the bombastic and physical comedienne best known for Broad City. Here, she’s less recognizable, her goofy smile snatched away, her signature main of curls tamed into a dull straight hairdo. Her physicality is shrunken in shrugs and woeful stares. That alone is jarring, and that’s the point, underlining a challenging tone that is bold but not necessarily effective.
Co-written by Glazer and director John Lee (Broad City, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday), False Positive has a tone halfway between horror and comedy, as opposed to a blend of the two. The performances from its cast are restrained, yet oddly bouncy. It’s as if they’re speaking in the cadence of a joke but without punchlines. However, the story that unfurls is deadly serious.
Glazer stars as Lucy, a big city woman who has got ambition, a job she loves, and a handsome older husband (Justin Theroux), but desperately wants a daughter to “have it all.” Enter Dr. Hindle (Pierce Brosnan), a dapper fertility doctor whose considered a miracle worker. Just like that, Lucy is on track to have the baby girl who she has already named (Wendy) and envisions what their life together will be like. However, over the course of her pregnancy, Lucy becomes suspicious of Dr. Hindle and her husband Adrian. She hears whispers that makes her worry. She suffers bad dreams or visions or…delusions? But everyone around her—including the doctor’s devoted and intensely sunny nurse (Gretchon Mol)—assures her that’s just because “Mommy brain is real.”
The psychological horror conceit is reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby or the lesser-known but Kindred. Yet the tone is jauntier, leaning toward parody like Kristen Wiig and Will Ferrell’s bold Lifetime movie, A Deadly Adoption. It’s an odd collision of comedy and horror that doesn’t satisfy the expectations of either.
False Positive is funny, but not in a “ha ha” way, more in a “huh?” way. While it features scenes of violence, gore, and trippy visions of horror, it’s never scary as much as unsteadying. To Lee’s credit, this has the effect of making you feel off-kilter like our perplexed heroine, who wonders endlessly what’s real and what isn’t. It’s a unique approach to the psychological thriller, which Lee is calling “psychological satire.” But to have a satire, you have to heighten things to an unreal—and humorous—place. Someone here needs to be the clown, pushing things outside the plausible. What Lucy goes through—while nightmarish—feels so familiar that even the film’s biggest, supposedly most shocking twists feel obvious.
Most women have experienced a male doctor patronizing them, ignoring their complaints, and condescending to us about our experience with our bodies. Many people have seen this atrocious behavior impact their birth plans and healthcare treatment. Some have seen their choices about their body parceled off to their husbands, like doctors who refuse to tie tubes without a husband’s permission. And some even experience the more traumatic violations that Lucy suffers. A true-crime documentary recently delved into such a case. (Click for spoilers.) It’s also not uncommon for women to share their concerns only to be gaslit or ignored by partners, friends, and medical staff. So, the satire element doesn’t quite sting. Especially because it’s not subtext. It’s text. It’s directly what False Positives is about.
The message overtakes the actual movie. Lucy is less a character, and more a symbol for all women who dare to dream of having a thriving career, a loving partner, and a child. So, of course, she’s undervalued at a boys club workplace, patronized at home, and has her control over her pregnancy wretched away from her by a grinning medical staff. All this occurs while she’s told to smile, be empowered, and not be hysterical. There’s even a prolonged YouTube presentation, using graphic archival images to demonize Western medicine as an unquestionably patriarchal evil. It’s preaching in all caps. Or considering the oddly goofy tone, All Caps in Comic Sans.
The visual imagery of the film is far more interesting than its on-the-nose script. Pools of dark, slowly spreading blood, visions of a pretty little girl’s face melting into muck, and a stark allusion to The Shining’s iconic furry sex scene, all serve as striking insights into Lucy’s perspective. Some will prove real, some prophetic, some metaphorical. Yet here—in the surreal—is where False Positives is at its best. This bleeds into an intriguing—but under-developed—criticism of the kind of white mommy who seeks a salvation with a problematic fetishization of holistic healthcare. From there, Glazer stumbles into a climax that finally hits its stride, blending an actually over-the-top response with a satirical tone made stinging by Mol’s sharp tongue. Finally, comes a resolution that for a brief, bleak and jaw-dropping moment, looks like it might delve into the truly daring. But then Lee and Glazer backpedal, pulling back from ledge and way from the satire or horror extreme that could have left us screaming.
In the end, I’m conflicted over False Positive. While it reminds me of movies I’ve seen—and loved before—the comparison is admittedly insufficient. Lee and Glazer, as co-writers and collaborators, have created something else, which even they struggle to sufficiently describe. The result is a film I could never truly settle into. Was this a comedy? Was this horror? Was I meant to be laughing or scared? I was neither. I was confused and unnerved and often annoyed. A jarring blend of plot and fearful fantasy throw us into a spin, making us uncertain who to trust—our protagonist included. However, her path is so familiar—trod into cliché for decades now—that there are little surprises. We can easily clock these red flags and see the path, even through more artful misdirections. So in the end, we’re left rattled but not dazzled.
Still, I admire the swing even if it didn’t work.
I wonder if a few years from now, I will revisit False Positive, and the advantage of knowing what to expect going in might give me a better entry point than going in cold. Pardon me a digression, but I recently rewatched Ingrid Goes West for a guest spot on The Screen Drafts Podcast. This was a movie that I firmly disliked when it debuted, sneering that it’s a comedy that just wasn’t funny. You can listen to the episode to hear me talk about how and why my opinion changed on a rewatch. Perhaps it’s that discussion still knocking around in my brain that makes me wonder if False Positives will prove better with distance and a rewatch. Maybe knowing where it’s headed would give me the mooring I need to sync to its strange vibe. Maybe my review will give you a smoother entry of expectation, and you’ll come away with a richer read that I was managed on the first watch. If so, please report back.
Following a premiere at the Tribeca Festival, False Positive debuts on Hulu on June 25.
Header Image Source: A24