False Positive: A Crowning Achievement, by David Bax
Going into False Positive armed with no knowledge other than the names of those involved, you would be forgiven for expecting to laugh. Starring Broad City‘s Ilana Glazer, directed by John Lee (a force behind a good number of the weirdest television comedies of the last two decades, from Wonder Showzen to Neon Joe, Werewolf Hunter), and written by the two of them together, the comedic pedigree is unassailable–even costar Justin Theroux has proven he knows his way around a joke. But False Positive, though often sharp and clever, is rarely funny. It has other ambitions, though, and it executes those well enough to make you forget any such expectations.
Lucy (Glazer) and her rich doctor husband Adrian (Theroux) have been trying for years to have a baby. Finally, Adrian convinces Lucy to let him use his connections to get her an appointment with Dr. Hindle (Pierce Brosnan), the most sought after fertility specialist in the city. During a procedure, though, Lucy thinks she may have overheard a suspicious bit of conversation between Adrian and Hindle just as the anesthesia knocks her out. For the rest of her pregnancy, this seed of paranoia consumes her until she becomes so disoriented that neither she nor we can trust what she’s seeing and hearing.
False Positive belongs to a long tradition of horror movies about pregnancies, from Rosemary’s Baby to Prevenge. With its in vitro fertilization-based plot, though, the film most closely resembles 1991’s underappreciated and thoroughly whacked out The Unborn, directed by Rodman Flender. False Positive may not quite reach the ludicrous heights of that movie but that by no means suggests Lee and Glazer are playing it safe here.
As horror, False Positive falls into the psychological subgenre. There aren’t many shocks or scares, just an underlying and ever-increasing creepiness, a sense that things aren’t quite right and are only getting more wrong, aided by a score that starts out playfully ominous and then becomes just ominous. From Brosnan’s overly charming doctor to Gretchen Mol’s overly helpful nurse to the overly manicured and tailored women of Lucy’s “mommy group,” everything is just a bit too perfect to be trustworthy.
Without giving away too many details, the plot involves the conundrum of “selective reduction.” Lucy is pregnant with multiple fetuses but she and Adrian are put in the position of having to decide which of them to destroy in order to ensure the viability of the other. Having to make such a choice must be a real life psychological horror all its own.
All of the terrible things Lucy is put through–not knowing whether she made the right decision, not believing her own senses–is repeatedly summed up by nearly every character in the movie as “mommy brain.” It’s an infantilizing term that underplays what are actually existential levels of cognitive dissonance. But it’s in keeping with our cultural impulses to paper over the mental anguish and trauma of pregnancy and shore up the more cheerful associations with the “miracle” of childbirth, like how women “glow” when they’re pregnant. False Positive does not deny the happiness that pregnancy brings to families. But it uses its high-concept genre embellishments to explore the rest of the story.