Ilana Glazer does a complete 180 from the Jewish screwball stoner humor of Broad City, taking an intense turn into psychological horror in False Positive. There’s not a trace of her slacker persona from the web series-turned-sitcom in her character Lucy, a young woman whose feelings of failure at being unable to get pregnant disappear when her husband’s connections allow them to skip the long waitlist for New York’s top fertility doctor. But the glow of expectant motherhood turns increasingly to paranoia, delusions and terror, eventually going full freak-out in John Lee’s twisted homage to Rosemary’s Baby for the post-IVF age.
The attention-grabbing opening plunges almost into Argento territory as Pawel Pogorzelski, the brilliantly suggestive cinematographer on Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Midsommar, floods a sleek Manhattan office building in throbbing reds and blues that consume the night. A curtain flutters ominously at an open window, suggesting that some grim occurrence has taken place, and Lucy is seen wandering trance-like through the streets, her face and clothing soaked in blood. Pulsing away underneath all this is Lucy Railton and Yair Elazar Glotman’s vintage-style horror score, full of tortured strings and unsettling vocal chants.
Director Lee, who co-wrote the screenplay with Glazer and was a frequent Broad City collaborator, doesn’t quite sustain that bold stylistic stamp, even if the perturbing intimacy and insidious angles of the visuals go a long way toward masking the uneven tone. For the most part, this is needling psychodrama with sly elements of feminist satire, which makes the lurch into lurid nightmare in the final stretch a bit disconcerting. But if False Positive’s descent into more alarmingly weird territory threatens to send it off the rails, the A24 production, going out as a Hulu Original, is clever, creepy and original enough to keep you glued.
An advertising executive working at a bro-heavy agency where her boss Greg (Josh Hamilton) cloaks his smug masculine privilege in patronizing support, Lucy starts to believe she really can have it all. Her pitch lands her the lead on a big account, and her doctor husband, Adrian (Justin Theroux), gets them an appointment at the city’s leading women’s reproductive center, run by his former teacher John Hindle (Pierce Brosnan). Something feels a little off at the swanky, sterile clinic, but Lucy seems determined not to let that faze her at first, even if the professionally ingratiating head nurse Dawn (Gretchen Mol) is instantly too familiar, and John’s charm already suggests a God complex as he proudly talks up the rewards of bestowing the precious gift of motherhood on women.
John has developed his own insemination method combining IUI and IVF technology, and one massive syringe shot later, Lucy is throwing up at the office. The doctor confirms that she’s pregnant, with the ultrasound revealing healthy male twins as well as a smaller singlet female. John points out the risk of complications and advises “selective reduction”; both he and Adrian favor keeping the boys over the less-developed girl. But Lucy ignores their objections and opts to keep the girl, naming her Wendy after her recently deceased mother.
There’s a long history of pregnancy in horror, with its aspects of corporeal invasion, heightened anxiety and, as Lucy’s simpering new younger friend Corgan (Sophia Bush) puts it, “mommy brain.” Lee and Glazer’s script frames the experience within the context of a patriarchal medical establishment and a reproductive Svengali whose suavely reassuring manner doesn’t hide a sinister controlling side in Brosnan’s chillingly effective performance.
As her pregnancy progresses, Lucy’s mounting suspicions go beyond the good doctor and the sugary-sweet icicle Nurse Dawn, extending to her husband as Adrian’s behavior around her becomes shifty. Plagued by queasy feelings and increasingly violent visions, she becomes convinced that Hindle and her husband are in cahoots and have done something to Wendy without her knowledge. She angers them both by choosing to engage a midwife for the delivery, Grace Singleton (Zainab Jah), who rejects modern gynecology. Her more spiritual, Afrocentric approach advocates reclaiming the traditional rituals of birth that belong to women but have been expropriated by male doctors.
Lucy finds the circle of people she can trust steadily shrinking as one after another they respond to her confusion and possible prenatal depression by questioning her stability. Is she paranoid or onto some kind of conspiratorial plan to take control of her pregnancy? The film teases out that question both in the crescendo of panicked isolation in Glazer’s compelling performance and the shadiness of everyone around her. Even the guys in the office suddenly seem more overt about undermining her confidence. Once she learns that Adrian and John are planning on merging their medical practices, her fears really take hold.
The shocking developments of the eventual birth and the deception involved send Lucy into a tailspin and the movie along with her. It veers almost into grotesque camp but with not enough abandon to really sell the Grand Guignol final act. A Peter Pan motif also seems unsatisfyingly integrated, even if the song “Who Am I?” from Leonard Bernstein’s score for the 1950 Broadway production provides a bewitchingly odd reflection of Lucy’s state of mind as she struggles with a reality too disturbing to comprehend.
False Positive might not quite stick the landing, but it’s a juicy genre entry about how women’s reproductive systems are treated like coveted real estate — expertly crafted in terms of its visual command and well-acted by a strong ensemble. Brosnan is deliciously diabolical, albeit mostly while maintaining a veneer of warmth; Mol laces subversive humor into the tasty supporting role of Nurse Dawn; Theroux keeps you guessing while showing glimpses of Adrian’s dark side; and Glazer ably expands her range as the woman in peril, driven to fierce extremes in her refusal to surrender.