‘Baby Ruby’ Rating: | IndieWire
TIFF: Bess Wohl’s directorial debut is less interested in the eponymous baby than in the impact it has on her struggling mother.
Despite its title, writer/director Bess Wohl’s debut feature film Baby Ruby isn’t primarily about the title child. Instead, she is interested in her beleaguered mother Jo (Noémie Merlant from “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”), a lifestyle influencer for an online magazine. Her husband Spencer (Kit Harington, “Game of Thrones”) is an “ethical” butcher. The couple, who live in a lavish cabin, are the sort of seemingly perfect couple on paper who have posted their idyllic baby pictures online to arouse envy. They show off the best parts of motherhood and sanitize the strain. But the bitter truth Jo discovers is that you can’t hide the strenuous parts.
The idea that cinema depicts the horrors and struggles of motherhood is not new. With films like Kindred, Umma and Lamb, this trend is accelerating. What sets Wohl’s film apart from everything else, however, is how he dissects the performative externality of maternal life, using postpartum psychosis as a vehicle to inflict the real-life horror, paranoia, insomnia, and hallucinations that new mothers experience.
Initially, Baby Ruby casts the title child as the villain. Jo notices how the baby in her womb seems to be fighting against her. These movements confuse Jo, but they don’t worry her. It’s not until Ruby is born and she refuses to stop crying, especially in the presence of Jo, that she comes to believe that Ruby either hates her or is disappointed in her. How can a baby feel hostility towards anyone, especially his mother? There’s a question that Jo spends much of the film spinning his head. And it gets even more urgent as the infant’s screams build to cacophonous levels and she turns seemingly vicious: Ruby bites Jo hard as she nurses her, drawing blood in the process. She also chews her ear. Jo tries to convince herself that this is normal behavior and that she suffers from typical fears, but the signs feel too real to ignore.
Despite this, the people in Jo’s life also try to calm her down: Spencer’s mother (Jayne Atkinson) tells stories about how her son was such a screamer that she literally wanted to kill him with a kitchen knife. Jo meets a club of moms who support each other through group activities, like jogging through the park with strollers, and share their difficult experiences. Each of them admits that beneath their flawless smile, there is an emotional crush. One mother, the cheerful Shelly (Meredith Hagger), becomes a fast friend and confidant for Jo. And yet, Jo begins to distrust anyone in a film that’s a cross between Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives.
The psycho-horror component pulls through confidently, because “Baby Ruby” doesn’t reach for simple jump scares. It draws on solid editing by Jin Lee, Arielle Sherman and JC Bond to stitch together scenes that showcase Jo’s unreliable perspective on what she feels, what she sees and the instincts that tell her to run away and to protect a child she despises, double. Once the camera looks through a window at the forest in front of Jo’s house. Between the frames we see a trio of Jo’s swaddling Ruby trying so desperately to soothe the bawling child. The tryptic is the burden of motherhood as a Renaissance painting. Similar to Jo, we never know exactly what’s real and what’s not. While this ambiguity can lead to frustration, the repetition of certain actions wears you down functionally but serves the purposes of good. The only element of Jo’s Horror that cannot be translated is the piece that is too close to the Vest subplot with Shelly. It totally fizzles out in its blur.
As Jo spirals toward violence, Merlant makes this woman’s inner fears outward in an intriguing and raucous manner. Because once again, in Jo’s eyes, Ruby is the villain of this film. And in Merlant’s performance – where her mind, body and spirit feel as if they are about to be torn apart – you can see her anger rising along with her exhaustion. Watching the French actress frantically yell, “I won’t let you win,” at a toddler is the culmination of “I Felt That” in a surprisingly funny film, which includes another scene in which a woman delivers a baby throws at a car.
Aside from its surreal horror leanings, however, “Baby Ruby” is really about the lack of support for new moms. Employers in America are still not required to offer paid maternity leave. Maternal mortality rates in the US are among the highest in the developed world. The façade of motherly happiness is maintained through social media. And there’s a silence fostered by a culture that too often discounts the work of raising children as not a career that makes open conversations about the physical and mental woes of mothers rare.
By the time of its uncomfortable but hopeful conclusion, Wohl weaves a mystery with so many illusions based on truth that each fright is haunting and indelible. “Baby Ruby” is a bold and captivating portrait of motherhood that will leave you crying the night away.
Baby Ruby premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.
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https://www.indiewire.com/2022/09/baby-ruby-review-1234761108/ ‘Baby Ruby’ Rating: | IndieWire