Antibirth feels like a movie retrofitted to justify its climax. Ending with an enjoyably gonzo gross-out sequence that’s the love child of David Cronenberg and Takashi Miike, it spends the prior 90 minutes meandering through a series of vignettes and confused half-justifications for the eventual destination, none of which cohere in any satisfying, or even sensible, way. It strives for arthouse abstraction but lands on choppy patchwork storytelling. Thankfully, what it does have is Natasha Lyonne, who almost singlehandedly keeps this misconceived endeavor afloat, or at least not actively unwatchable.
The actor has experienced a remarkable resurgence in the past few years, thanks in part to her profile-boosting turn on Orange Is The New Black and an addiction-to-sobriety path to rival Robert Downey Jr. Here, she channels her storied past to play Lou, the kind of drug-addled but charming fuckup that plays to Lyonne’s strengths—a bluntly outsized personality, brash but likable, with a self-destructive streak bigger than the podunk town in which the story unfolds. Living in the dilapidated but free trailer home bequeathed her by a deceased father, Lou lives to get high and enjoy life, picking up the occasional shift as a motel maid, until a blackout one night leaves her with strange visions, bizarre health issues, and a rapidly expanding midsection that gives the term “immaculate conception” an unsettling twist.
In Lyonne’s hands, the body horror elements of Antibirth possess a visceral effectiveness. As her belly swells in a matter of days and her frame is pummeled with various gruesome afflictions (sickly skin lesions, a massive foot blister containing far too much viscous liquid), Lou responds as any sensible person lacking health care would: by putting on a brave public face while freaking out about it in private. These sequences, though sometimes undercut by first-time feature director Danny Perez’s penchant for inserting homages to trashy public-access TV programming, are the most successful element of the film. And the aforementioned finale—which features spewing fluids, government agents, and a genuinely horrific moment which earns the film its title—is well worth seeing.
Unfortunately, there’s an entire movie to get through before arriving there. Antibirth is all over the map, in terms of both tone and quality. There’s a mid-’90s indie vibe to some of the proceedings, as scene after scene finds Lou and her friend Sadie (Chloë Sevigny) hanging out, getting high, listening to music, and shooting the shit like characters in a Gus Van Sant knockoff. Other times, the film pivots to the den of a drug dealer (Mark Webber), taking on a tense and jittery vibe as it tries to fill in the background of Lou’s transformation with some oblique nonsense about a new drug with dangerous side effects. And partway through the film, Meg Tilly—nigh-unrecognizable, save for that unmistakable voice—enters as a mysterious stranger who may or may not have information about what’s happening to Lou. She seems to have been ported over from another movie altogether—one with a more traditional horror narrative, though Tilly’s scattershot explanations are as half-baked as the “vision” montages sprinkled throughout, like dream sequences from some soggy made-for-cable clunker. Perez may be trying to say something about the visual aesthetic of low-budget Americana media, but he’s not doing it very well.
Lyonne holds this entire slapdash mess together through sheer force of personality. It’s not enough to rescue the go-nowhere subplots, or make the stylistic flourishes (like a psychedelic children’s restaurant staffed by creepy furries) feel any less shoehorned into the proceedings. But her winning presence at least anchors these jarring and inconsistent scenes from one moment to the next. Every time the camera lingers overlong on another shot of Sevigny dance-swaying, or we take a minute to watch a homeless man (or is he? Who cares?) spy on sex in the back of a car, Lyonne is never far away, ready to grit her teeth and lend some vivacious sparkle to a movie that doesn’t deserve it.