Pregnancy can be horrifying, not least because feeling and saying so is still taboo. Popular culture presents motherhood as a blissful experience that gives a woman’s life new meaning and purpose, and if she is ambivalent about any part of the process, let alone alienated or angry or depressed, then the problem must lie within her. Perhaps predictably, the horror genre has been a place to explore the anxieties of pregnancy, in covert ways—the chestburster scene in Alien can be read as a birth metaphor—and overt ones. False Positive, a new A24 project picked up by Hulu during the pandemic, takes the latter approach.
Incorporating shocking examples of real-life medical misconduct into a classic tale of prenatal gaslighting à la Rosemary’s Baby, the film tackles issues of bodily autonomy and paternalistic medicine through the character of Dr. Hindle (Pierce Brosnan), the in-demand fertility specialist who helps marketing copywriter Lucy (Broad City’s Ilana Glazer) get pregnant after two years of unsuccessful effort. According to Hindle, Lucy need not worry her pretty little head about how he succeeded where other doctors failed—an opinion reinforced by Lucy’s husband, Adrian (Justin Theroux), a former student of the suspiciously debonair physician. But Lucy’s quiet intuition that something is wrong eventually grows loud enough that she can no longer dismiss it—as everyone around her does—as mere “mommy brain.”
On a broader conceptual level, False Positive is clever, setting up and then defying expectations through the subversion of tropes—most notably, the “magical Negro” stereotype as expressed through the character of a midwife (Zainab Jah) who serves as a holistic foil to the patronizing Hindle. But the satire of pregnancy culture is surprisingly mild, given that co-writer and producer Glazer, who’s currently expecting her first child, has personal experience with the topic. And the surrealism of the piece, lightly expressed in eye-catching compositions involving mirrors and gloved hands, isn’t pushed nearly as far as co-writer/director John Lee has gone in TV work like The Heart, She Holler and Xavier: Renegade Angel. In fact, the most stylized aspect of False Positive is how aggressively bland it is, placing Lucy in a gray IKEA nightmare of urban bourgeois nothingness. (The salad-ordering scenes would make Buñuel proud.) Hindle’s office, meanwhile, has an Insta-Stepford aesthetic, epitomized by the baby pink sheath dress and neat coiffure of his right hand woman, committed gender essentialist Nurse Dawn (Gretchen Mol).
A work subplot adds little besides establishing Lucy as a modern woman trying to “have it all.” Like much of False Positive, scenes set at her office burn at a low and even temperature, with feminist commentary no sharper than the jabs at self-satisfied mothers-to-be. Toward the very end of the film, False Positive breaks away from propriety and goes feral, snapping and growling at the hubris of male doctors who think they know a woman’s body better than she does. Epitomized by an arresting image of Glazer soaked in blood under harsh flash lighting like an unholy Terry Richardson photo, this anger bookends a film where every character has a strained smile fixed on their face.
Where False Positive could be stronger is in differentiating its satire of mind-numbing yuppiedom from the genuine article; the distinction is subtle enough that viewers may struggle to tell them apart. Glazer and Lee both work primarily in comedy, but the commentary here is drier and more serious, producing knowing nods instead of outright laughter. The apparent desire by the core creative team to break from their wilder, messier material by giving False Positive A24 gloss and a steely Dead Ringers spine is understandable. But for a movie with this much blood, it doesn’t leave much of a stain.