Sunday, September 27, 2009

Mamma Mia! Thatsa Hungry Baby

Few things possess more potential terror than newborns. Babies are tiny. They weigh less than a greek omelette breakfast plate and seem more fragile than a fine fabrege egg. People tell you to loosen up when you hold one in your arms, yet one drop of your elbows and seasoned relatives are leaping towards you with looks of disgust previously reserved for brussel sprouts and Uwe Boll movies.
I don’t mean to make light out of parenthood in any way. I may indeed one day birth my own deadly dollette, but at this point in life, the idea of being the body and soul responsible in full for a helpless creature is truly terrifying. Grace, first time writer/director Paul Solet’s chilly new thriller, is not a perfect film in any way but does manage to capture the inherent horror and inevitable power natural to my understanding of motherhood.
Quick Plot: Jordan Ladd plays Madeleine, a happily married enough vegan expecting her first child following two miscarriages and three years of fertility treatments. In case you don’t get it, she really wants a baby.

A tragic car accident (because films involving pregnant women feature no other type) widows Madeleine and stops the heartbeat of her now nearly 7 month old fetus. Madeleine decides to carry out her pregnancy, delivering what seems to be a stillborn in the home clinic of her midwife/ex college girlfriend. In a heart-wrenching scene, the new mother cradles her lifeless daughter when, to everyone’s surprise, baby Grace lets out a cry. 

She’s alive. Maybe.
Madeleine brings Grace home and picks up her life doing the typical new mom activities, like singing lullabies and warding off a nosy mother-in-law (Gabrielle Rose). Then other things happen. Instead of popping in the latest Baby Einstein, Madeleine finds herself having to seal off the crib with homemade fly netting when a swarm of insects take a liking to the infant. A gentle bath takes a turn when Grace lets out a primal scream and seems to develop an instant rash. Why does she have a rotten smell and, perhaps most pressing of all, where the hell did this kid learn how to breast feed, Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror?

Grace is rich in potential and, for its first 45 minutes, is a genuinely unnerving film. Solet creates a sort of Rosemary’s Baby-esque mood with a little more maternal warmth. Ladd’s Madeleine is tragically sympathetic and we want the best for this newly created (and broken) family. Her in-laws, meanwhile, are a creepily fascinating side story of their own. Unfortunately, Solet never finds the right story to comfortably unite the two. I’ve heard some reviewers describe Grace as being a great idea for a short story or piece of an anthology film (it began life as an 8 minute short), but I think its premise could easily have been a better feature with a tighter storyline. It’s riveting to watch a near catatonic Madeleine go through the motions of motherhood knowing that something is terribly wrong, especially with such somberly creative artistic choices in lighting and sound. I won’t go into spoilers here (check out my previous post at Pop Syndicate for more explicit ramblings), but what begins as a quietly chilling tale of broken mothers doing what they think is best has absolutely no reason to turn into a lights-off violent showdown between unrealistically violent characters. 

High Points
Several excellent performances fill Grace. Ladd easily holds the film and shows a depth and command past roles never even hinted at, while Gabrielle Rose and Serge Houde make a realistically sad older couple disturbingly content in not being happy
The first fly scene is wonderfully creepy and makes me wish I had seen it one week before writing about great fly moments in horror 

Plenty of small touches--like Dr. Sohn (which happens to be the same name of my beloved childhood pediatrician)’s Cronenberg-ish breast pump and Vivian’s intimacy style with her long-suffering husband--help to create a strong underlying sense of wrongness to the world of Grace
Low Points
The coldness in Madeleine and Michael’s marriage is quite an intriguing choice, but it never gets enough attention to let us know how she actually feels now that he’s gone
Despite some excellent staging and a lot of suspense, I fell out of Grace by the time the third act kicked in. Not every horror film (if you even want to give Grace that label) needs to climax in an act of violence, but it seems like Solet painted himself into a corner by not setting up a strong enough plot to allow a more emotional or intelligent ending

Lessons Learned
As long as your nipples get enough attention, you can nurse after menopause
Karl’s cows have no antibiotics or synthetic hormones
Anemia is best cured with a little milking from a rusted brass breast pump
Always stay in touch with your obsessive college hookups, particularly if they’re well-versed in the art of birthing babies, negotiating the price of a used RV, and wig shopping

If it seems like I’m being hard on Grace, it’s mostly because Paul Solet is clearly a gifted and promising filmmaker with more complete works ahead of him. The atmosphere of the film is haunting and distinct, and clearly the man can pull great performances out of a range of actors. This is a good film and a great alternative to more formulaic mainstream horror; it’s just not the near perfect thriller I was hoping for. The DVD, however, is bursting with extras and is probably a must for anyone with a serious interest in how to make and market a low budget film, from its infancy to a Sundance premiere. This isn’t a true classic, but it will leave you sad and scared for most of its running time. Plus, it provides us all with a great question for the old would-you-rather party game: would you rather have a mammary obsessed mother-in-law or a carnivorous baby? Drink a meat & vitamin shake or a post-menopausal woman’s breast milk? And so on...


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Great. Now I have to be afraid of the Langoliers living inside my blog!

  3. Nice, solid review. This movie made me uncomfortable and I appreciate that.

  4. Thanks kookiebish! Sometimes we all really need to feel like the world is amiss.