The second day of the 38th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival drew to a close with playwright Bess Wohl’s directorial debut, “Baby Ruby.” The film follows French fashion and lifestyle blogger Jo (Noémie Merlant) and her husband Spencer (Kit Harington) as they navigate parenthood with their newborn baby Ruby, who begins to unravel their seemingly flawless life one tantrum at a time. “Baby Ruby” offers a delicately balanced take on early motherhood, and while the film falters at times, it certainly sets up Wohl as a filmmaker to watch.
Jo wants to be a perfect mother — she knows she can be. The influencer expects to breeze through every challenge that may come her way with the same air of effortlessness she carried while throwing her own baby shower or making an internet-breaking cheese soufflé. She’s confident motherhood will be yet another milestone she reaches with grace, and so is everyone else around her. Not one word of uncertainty is uttered by her husband, mother-in-law, assistant or friends before Ruby is born.
Wohl uses this setup — an unwillingness to express any doubt or worry — to hide the terrifying possibility that Jo is failing as a mother, which weaves fearful suspicions throughout the film. She quickly begins to spiral into postpartum psychosis, and soon the film’s hallucinatory sequences makes the viewer begin to wonder whether Jo’s anxiety-driven delusions about people wanting to hurt her baby might actually have some truth to them.
“Baby Ruby” toes the line between an indie drama about the suffocating expectations that come with motherhood and a horror flick about a haunting by an insatiable shrieking creature you can’t seem to escape. The final act highlights the almost absurd irony of Jo’s uncontrollable instinct to protect Ruby despite the first hour of the film portraying Jo feeling endlessly tormented by her.
Wohl has a lot to say about the negative consequences of a one-sided view of motherhood, but she never paints Jo as a bad mother because of her struggles. Certainly, the fear of this is there — it drives much of the main horror of the film — but Wohl skirts deftly around making the point that being anything less than perfect is a terrifying failure. Merlant’s performance as Jo also adds layers of depth to a character that could easily become tiresome.
One of the more impressive effects featured in the film is a repeated trick involving Jo’s reflection and an unruly shadow, which personifies the incompetency Jo feels lurking around every corner, ready to whisk Ruby away at any moment. It is these elements of psychological horror that make the film shine, along with skillful cinematography and an unnerving score.
At times, “Baby Ruby” feels reminiscent of movies like “Hereditary” and “The Babadook,” which tackle familial drama with a much more gruesome approach. In one particular scene, her mother-in-law confesses to Jo that she also found caring for a newborn akin to punishment, and that she fantasized about ridding herself of her child by whatever means necessary. Jo begs her to stop talking, but her mother-in-law tells her that keeping these thoughts to oneself only gives them more power — alluding to some kind of generational curse. Wohl plays with the idea that something sinister may indeed be going on, but never fully commits to bringing the horror out of Jo’s psyche and into the real world in a way that feels concrete. This indecision makes it difficult to buy the movie as an all-out horror film rather than a pointed criticism of our impossible demands of mothers.
Despite this, the film delivers a painfully real portrayal of motherhood with care, never placing blame on any character. Ruby is just a baby, and Jo is trying her very hardest — even her somewhat unsympathetic husband truly wants what’s best for both of them. Wohl blends genres together, albeit with a few missteps, to create a film rich with symbolic meaning and social commentary that leaves the audience wanting more.
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