‘Antibirth’: Sundance Review

Natasha Lyonne and Chloe Sevigny co-star in Danny Perez’s debut feature.

A background in experimental filmmaking may not seem like the most direct route to completing a full-length horror movie, but the format’s improvisational requirements inform a certain manic spontaneity in Danny Perez’s Antibirth, a twisted perspective on the extremities of drug abuse.

Lead actress Natasha Lyonne, who also serves as a producer on the film, delivers a particularly intense performance as a troubled veteran for whom recreational drugs are more of a vocation than a diversion. Although often narratively cryptic and stylistically uneven, Antibirth could serve to establish Perez’s reputation in low-budget horror, but may not see much exposure beyond that limited arena.

The Bottom Line

More surreal than shocking.

When first introduced, thirtyish Lou (Lyonne) is regularly indulging her prodigious appetite for drugs and alcohol, which she consumes on a daily basis, along with prescription pills and pretty much whatever other intoxicants cross her path. Along with her gal pal Sadie (Chloe Sevigny) she’s out partying almost every night and when she’s not, then she’s dutifully getting wasted at home. The low-wage job she works cleaning motel rooms part-time barely covers her various habits, which she can really only afford by living rent-free in the double-wide trailer that her Vietnam-vet father left to her after he died. Her old military buddy Gabriel (Mark Webber) is her supplier and if anything, he’s even less discriminating than she is, hunting down any cheap new high that he can pass on to his unsuspecting customers. 

After one epically bad night that involves hallucinatory visions followed by a total blackout, Lou discovers that she’s pregnant, even though she’s pretty sure she isn’t sleeping with anyone. Sadie isn’t any help since she wasn’t much more sober herself that night, but as her pregnancy develops at an alarming rate, Lou still refuses to see a doctor, terrified by what she may find out about her unnatural “infection.” So she enlists Sadie to help her unravel the timeline from that lost evening, but the faint trail of information keeps leading back toward Gabriel, who denies any knowledge of what might have happened to her.

It isn’t until Lorna (Meg Tilly), another vet and complete conspiracy fanatic, shows up offering to trade information about secret military medical experiments for details on Lou’s unnaturally progressing pregnancy that she begins to suspect that her amnesia may have been intentionally inflicted. Needless to say, it’s all a bit of a bad trip (exacerbated by frequent violent flashbacks), but not nearly as twisted as what Lou may find out if she keeps pursuing answers to questions that she probably shouldn’t be asking.

Perez takes his stylistic cues from visual techniques he developed while working with alt-popsters Animal Collective on music videos and performance installations, as well as ODDSAC, an experimental, hour-long film that he created for the band, which also screened in Sundance’s 2010 edition of New Frontier. Sequences throughout Antibirth that rely on moody lighting and disorienting SFX reinforce the episodes of confusion and dislocation that Lou and Sadie experience, but also highlight the fairly unimaginative dramatic passages that attempt to propel the plot while filling in gaps between pertinent incidents.

Generously referencing low-budget horror conventions and X Files style paranormal conspiracy paranoia, Perez’s lean script is most efficient at building sympathy for his characters, led by a trio of flawed, strong-willed women. Forsaking her usual comedic roles, Lyonne goes for a much darker approach with Lou, who got into drugs in the service and can’t, or won’t, quit. Her fierce investment in the part finally delivers in the latter stretches of the film, but initially Lou comes off as almost intentionally grating, as she impulsively pursues booze, drugs and addictive behavior.

Sevigny’s Sadie remains comparatively approachable but not especially involving, until her loyalty to Lou appears to be irreparably compromised. After a long hiatus, Antibirth would seem a rather curious return to feature filmmaking for Tilly, but she displays an affinity for the desperate, paranoid Lorna, the only one who may truly understand the significance and severity of Lou’s predicament.

Production companies: Traverse Media, Hideaway Pictures, WeatherVane Productions

Cast: Natasha Lyonne, Chloe Sevigny, Meg Tilly, Mark Webber

Director-writer:  Danny Perez

Producers: Cole Payne, Natasha Lyonne, David Anselmo, Roger M. Mayer, Justin Kelly

Executive producers: Executive producers:  Jeff Elliott, Chad Moore, Gregory P. Shockro, Lee Broda, Jeff Rice, Rob Weston, Anders Erden, Tim Smith, Lee Vandermolen, Tom Butterfield, Ben McConley, Jason Van Eman, Ahmad Ismail, Nick Sorbara, Mark Stevens Jeremy Loethen

Director of photography: Rudolf Blahacek

Production designer: Peter Mihaichuk

Costume designer:   Alexander Reda

Editor: Aden Bahadori 

Music: Eric Copeland, Jonathan J.K. Kanakis

Casting director:  Nicole Hilliard-Forde

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)

Sales: Preferred Content

Not rated, 94 minutes