‘birth/rebirth’ Movie Review [Sundance 2023]: Revival Horror With a Motherhood Twist

Body horror made its mark with Frankenstein, but filmmakers still find inventive ways of further weaving their stitching into something gruesome and unique. Writer/director Laura Moss and co-writer Brendan J. O’Brien introduce motherhood into the equation of birth/rebirth, asking the audience to interrogate their own assumptions. This narrative may be light on scares, but its medical horror is undeniably entertaining.

'birth/rebirth' 3.0 star graphic

‘birth/rebirth’ tries to cheat death

'birth/rebirth' A.J. Lister as Lila looking serious with blood on her face
A.J. Lister as Lila | Shudder

A morgue technician named Rose (Marin Ireland) enjoys the quiet while she works on corpses. Little do her colleagues realize, she has an obsession with her research surrounding the reanimation of the dead. Rose is willing to do whatever it takes to finally achieve this goal, although she now finally met someone just as desperate as she.

Celie (Judy Reyes) works as a maternity nurse who works hard to provide a life for her 6-year-old daughter, Lila (A.J. Lister). When she suddenly falls ill and dies, Rose becomes convinced that the young girl is the perfect candidate for the first human she brings back from the dead. The technician and nurse’s paths collide, setting them on an incredibly dangerous path.

The true cost of a mother’s love

The title birth/rebirth is played quite literally, especially in the hospital setting. Celie regularly brings babies into this world, while Rose is frequently surrounded by death in the morgue. However, only a few floors separate these two vastly different environments. Both women are overworked with their responsibilities at work and in their personal lives. Life and death ultimately clash in Celie and Rose’s meeting, proving that they have more in common than they thought.

Celie is portrayed with her warmth as a hard-working mother, while Rose is introduced with an off-putting coldness. Lila’s death instills these traits in one another, fueling their obsessions to alarming new levels. Rose is willing to go to increasingly more disturbing lengths to obtain the resources that she needs to fuel her reanimation research, which requires Celie to sacrifice her moral compass for a chance of getting her daughter back. However, the audience is already aware that bringing a dead child back to life never achieves the desired results.

All of the characters in birth/rebirth seek to find a purpose in life. Celie, Rose, and other hospital staff define their lives by a single goal they fixated on, resulting in them feeling lost when it becomes unobtainable. Moss and O’Brien’s screenplay provides some depth to Rose, in particular, as the root of her odd passions puts her actions into context. The audience is never asked to excuse her actions, but rather quite the opposite.

‘birth/rebirth’ is a dark, yet entertaining morality tale

'birth/rebirth' Marin Ireland as Rose and Judy Reyes as Celie. Rose is kneeling down in front of Celie, who is sitting down looking straight ahead.
L-R: Marin Ireland as Rose and Judy Reyes as Celie | Shudder
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Moss carries the initially opposite energies of Celie and Rose in her direction, often establishing a form of framing duality that works in the film’s favor. Ariel Marx’s droning score is persistently eerie, further establishing the dark and bleak tone.

Reyes turns in a reliable performance as Celie, landing the character’s emotional beats without overplaying it. But, Ireland is the shining star here as the awkwardly stern Rose, while contributing just the right amount of camp into her performance. Together, they make a worthwhile duo, even when the screenplay doesn’t give their characters quite the emotional weight that they should have.

The science in birth/rebirth makes very little sense with its own logic, shrugging it off as an afterthought. There’s also a severe lack of scares here, rather putting an emphasis on a dark comedic spin to David Cronenberg-esque body horror that targets those most squeamish to all things medical.

Re-Animator comparisons aside, birth/rebirth throws an amusingly clever motherhood twist that acts as a warped morality tale with a touch of humor. Moss goes to some fairly dark thematic places, but she doesn’t allow it to cloud the very intentional tone that she set to achieve from the start.