BABY RUBY – Review by Nadine Whitney

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Baby Ruby, the debut directorial feature by playwright and actor Bess Wohl, uses the tropes of horror to consider the pressures of motherhood – particularly when those pressures are made all the more distressing by postpartum depression, or in the case of the protagonist, Jo (Noémie Merlant), postpartum psychosis.

The heavily pregnant Jo sits in her immaculately decorated home in what we assume is upstate New York. She is making her own bunting for her baby shower. Precisely cutting pink felt to spell out Baby Ruby, she is quintessentially the picture-perfect vision of expectant motherhood. It is no surprise to learn that Jo runs a popular online “magazine” called LOVE, JOSÉPHINE in which Jo curates her French-American lifestyle to perfection. The magazine is successful enough that she has staff. Jo’s attentive husband Spencer (Kit Harington) works as a butcher, or as Jo likes to claim, “artisanal butcher.”

The baby shower is perfectly catered with an Anne Geddes like cake replete with an infant girl made out of icing surrounded by flowers. Everything is fodder for LOVE, JOSÉPHINE. Every moment of Jo’s pregnancy has been decorously documented, so why, after Baby Ruby actually arrives, doesn’t Jo fill her feed with content of the infant?

Perhaps it is because giving birth is a shock to Jo’s system. Instead of precious moments, Jo sees herself bleeding, her body marred with stretch marks, her hair falling out, and having to wear pads for post-labour incontinence. Jo’s own perfection has been despoiled. Perhaps it is because Ruby is a seemingly troublesome baby who cries relentlessly, except when she is in the company of other people. Jo’s perfect life is becoming a nightmare – one that is figurative and literal as time collapses in on her and she becomes more mentally unstable.

Wohl is commenting on the pressures new mothers face when they are exhausted and feeling unsupported, but she is doing so by defining Jo’s character as a “girlboss” who has been in control of almost every aspect of her adult life. Jo is reticent about having Spencer look after Ruby. She resents Spencer’s slightly overbearing mother, Doris (Jayne Atkinson) and any advice that she has to give. When Jo befriends a group of mothers with seemingly perfect (but unseen and unheard) babies they all look like the “mommy influencers” that Jo is supposed to be.

Using Jo’s point of view we go down the rabbit hole with her. Beyond exhausted she begins to imagine a vast conspiracy to harm Ruby, or she imagines that Ruby herself is trying to harm her. Her paranoia grows and Spencer looks on helplessly as Jo unravels. There are strong echoes to Rosemary’s Baby although Wohl is using horror as a metaphor. It’s clear that Jo is in crisis and although she may no longer know what is real and what is not, Wohl doesn’t quite manage to convince the audience to feel the same discombobulation that Jo is going through.

In effect, that is the film’s biggest failure. In employing horror to speak to a real condition (postpartum psychosis) Baby Ruby doesn’t quite fulfill its brief as a psychological thriller. We are convinced that Jo sees herself as a monster, and sometimes she sees Ruby as a monster, but we are not convinced that either fit that description. The chief tension lies in what Jo might do to herself or the infant.

Merlant is strong as Jo, we feel her confusion and terror. Kit Harington is adequate as Spencer but isn’t given a lot of space in the script. Jayne Atkinson is effective as Doris, who for a moment seems to be genuinely a threat, but also one of Jo’s strongest allies as she explains that she too found early motherhood impossible and often wished that Spencer would disappear. The fact that it is possible for a new mother to feel so isolated that she imagines she hates her own child is something that Doris says, “We can’t even admit it, so it grows stronger.”

While the genre flourishes make for an attention-grabbing visual experience, they sometimes overwhelm and become repetitive. There are only so many times the audience wants to see Jo awaken from a nightmare to be unsure if the events happened. Wohl hasn’t immersed us enough to make us believe they are.

Where the film is powerful is in its raw depiction of how overwhelming it can be to take care of a new-born and how easily exhaustion can lead to something darker and in Jo’s case extremely alienating. Wohl sadly overcooks her concepts and if she had shown more restraint, she would have delivered a more impactful vision.

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney is a seasoned film critic and scholar. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Nadine contributes regularly to FILMINK, The Curb, and Mr Movies Film Blog. She holds a degree in cinema theory and cultural studies. Her specialty is surrealism in cinema. She is as passionate about cats as she is about film. She is co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association and a member of FIPRESCI.