Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf) are excited to welcome their first child. Well, excited/terrified in proportions that vary wildly from moment to moment, and depending on what kind of shade Martha’s judgy and manipulative mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) is throwing. Usually it’s quite a lot, but what can they say when she’s co-signing the loan on their new minivan?
Martha is opting for a home birth but of course when she goes into labour, some other thoughtless pregnant lady is monopolizing her midwife and she has to settle for her back-up, Eva (Molly Parker). It’s not exactly the birth plan Martha had naively hoped for, but none of it matters once those contractions get serious. Her labour is long and difficult, and we get a front row seat. It is raw and captivating, told in a good 30 minute chunk of some of the most intimate film making I’ve ever seen.
Director Kornél Mundruczó shows the birth of a beautiful baby girl in excruciating, glorious detail. Her death is much more swift. It is easy enough to show a baby’s arrival, and I suppose also her loss, but it is another thing entirely to show a mother learning to live without her.
Vanessa Kirby is astonishing in this – numb with grief, achingly lonely, and finally, explosive with anger. The film’s second half can’t quite compete with its dizzying first (very little can), but even if it occasionally slips, Kirby does not, she soldiers on, the portrait of a woman fractured by her loss, still wearing badges of motherhood without the defining, essential thing. Her life, her home, her relationship have all become haunted by the ghost of such brief life. Martha stumbles along the path toward some kind of acceptance, but Kirby’s Oscar track is sure-footed and just.
Imagine for a moment, if you will, that one day the hospital calls and tells you to come pick up your great-grandfather. The one that’s been dead for a hundred years. Yeah, that one. Herschel. It’s a Rip Van Winkle/Encino Man kind of thing. Just trust that the science is sound and poor Herschel’s been perfectly preserved in pickle juice this whole time, and has just now awoken. Enter his only living relative, Ben, who gamely picks him up and introduces him to 2020. The movie never pauses over the fact that Ben asks no questions, makes no deliberations, just makes room in his life and his home for a complete stranger who looks nearly identical to him, is his same exact age, but is from another time and place.
Herschel has a deep-rooted fear of Cossacks and his highest aspiration is to one day try seltzer water. Ben is an insecure app developer who just happens to own a soda stream. Both men are played by Seth Rogen. This is very much the Seth Rogen show. All of Herschel’s friends are dead, and Ben appears to be a loner. It’s double Seth and little else. Not that that’s a bad thing. In fact, it gives Rogen a chance to flex. When both characters are on screen, you can appreciate how fully he has created two separate and distinct portraits. It’s kind of impressive, actually.
The story uses the dual perspectives to weigh values like religion, duty, family, and legacy. Herschel has the can-do work ethic that, as an immigrant in search of a better life for his family, helps him pursue the American dream. Ben, Brooklyn born and bred, has lost touch with his roots and is apathetic toward his religion and ethnicity. Sometimes we marvel that our ancestors were bold enough to relocate to foreign lands, leaving behind family, familiarity, culture, language, memories and possessions, with no guarantee that anything would ever be better. And sometimes we wonder if those ancestors who risked life traveling over rough seas and blazed actual paths through unyielding lands did it so that we could stay in bed all day binge-watching Bravo. This is probably not the future they envisioned when they risked it all. But while you and I may have a vague feeling that the past would be disappointed by the present, Ben is confronted with that feeling very, very viscerally. His name is Herschel, and he gives zero fucks.