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Antibirth: Comedy-horror film skirts around issues of gendered violence

Natasha Lyonne stars in Antibirth, a sexual whodunnit in which the drug-addicted main character, Lou, struggles to come to terms with finding herself pregnant and unable to remember how or where it could have happened.

2.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
Danny Perez
Directed by
Danny Perez
Natasha Lyonne, Chloë Sevigny, Meg Tilly

The low-pitch crackle of a cigarette being lit, the staccato gurgle of bong water, the babble of a television left on in the background: This is the ambient soundtrack of director Danny Perez's comedy-horror Antibirth. Perez, whose background is in experimental video and whose CV includes a collaborative visual album with the group Animal Collective, has spun his unique genre-busting style into his first feature film starring Natasha Lyonne (Orange Is the New Black).

Filmed in Sudbury but set in an unnamed and unremarkable wasteland of a Michigan town, Lyonne plays Lou, a townie and addict reeling from her last bender with fellow party-girl Sadie (Chloë Sevigny). Mascara-smeared Lou can't piece together the end of her night – it only comes to her in psychedelically hued scraps of memory – which proves problematic since she's now pregnant.

What follows is a sexual whodunit that soft-shoes around the question of rape and consent by way of Lou's jokes about her "weird immaculate conception" and refusal to slow down her intake of hooch and weed. Abortion is quickly dismissed as an option when Lyonne delivers the following line in her signature husky, Marlon Brando-like voice: "I'm not going to pay some guy to scramble my guts!"

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The spectre of Lou's rape is also waved away by Lyonne's performance of sexual ambiguity. Which is to say, her character is not asexual, but her desires are often expressed in jest and remain largely uncharted territory. Lyonne is an actor who lends herself to this kind of gendered openness: From her early roles in Slums of Beverly Hills and But I'm a Cheerleader, to the American Pie movies and more recently in Orange Is the New Black, she runs the sexual gamut of straight and queer identities. Antibirth shifts the focus away from the reality of gendered violence by playing up Lyonne's sexual indeterminateness and her blasé attitude toward her own rape.

Lou's strength is a function of necessity that is born out of her neglect, abandonment and lack of any other options – she is a deadbeat antihero with a biting sense of humour and a penchant for self-flagellation. Once again, Lyonne's comedic dexterity comes as much-needed relief. As her stomach quickly distends and finally begins to immobilize her, she hobbles around with large sunglasses and a baseball bat for a cane, all the while swearing like a raspy-voiced trucker. From the side, she cuts the profile of a madcap Hunchback of Notre Dame high on pills.

When a bug-eyed conspiracy theorist and self-proclaimed psychic (Meg Tilly) comes along with some ideas of what is happening to Lou's expanding and pulsating belly, Lou is only mildly irritated by this "spaced-out mama" who ends up serving as midwife in a pinch.

As a film about the exploitation of the poor and addicted, Antibirth pokes at some relevant social issues (such as the crisis of opioid use in small towns across the United States) but never goes in for a closer look.

Like the 2014 psychological horror film It Follows or the Canadian cult classic Ginger Snaps, Antibirth veers away from a morality tale about promiscuity, but it does insist that having lady parts is a terrifying and excruciatingly painful thing.

In this regard, Perez's film carries the torch of that most squeamish subset of the genre – pregnancy horror. Antibirth follows in the tradition of Alien, Prometheus and Rosemary's Baby rejoicing in an abject fear of childbirth. Lovers of horror will likely be into this fertile homage and will appreciate Perez's new takes on horror's tried-and-true tropes and plot twists. For others, it will be Antibirth's female performances – by Lyonne, Sevigny and Tilly – that will carry the film by the skin of its teeth, bearing the brunt of the labour, naturally.

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