By Jim Slotek
I’ve rarely seen a film so hopelessly lost in its premise as Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais' Birthmarked, an inert “comedy” about two married scientists (Toni Collette and Matthew Goode) whose own impending parenthood inspires them to become modern-day B.F. Skinners.
Skinner was the renowned behaviorist whose novel theories of child raising included keeping his baby daughter in a heated “baby tender” as opposed to a crib, a device whose image was published in Ladies’ Home Journal as “Baby in a Box.” It (unfairly) cemented his reputation as a mad scientist willing to experiment on his own child to prove his theories.
Flash ahead to this bad idea of a movie. In narration, we are apprised that Catherine and Ben (Collette and Goode) were natural born scientists (though Ben had a love of basketball his scientist father derailed). So naturally, they gravitated toward nurture in the eternal debate of nature versus nurture.
And to prove same, they posit raising their own child and two adopted ones in an isolated, wooded environment, with stimuli that runs opposite to their apparent nature.
Happily for their plan (and unhappily for the viewer), a billionaire philanthropist named Gertz (Michael Smiley) agrees to fund the experiment over decades.
From the start, this goes beyond anything Skinner was ever accused of. It’s unlikely two smart people couldn’t envision their experiment being judged harshly.
Moreover, once the movie switches from narration to action, we see the experiment failing at an early stage. Mantras and New Age music don’t keep little Maurice from being an abrasive jerk. Luke is horribly inept at modern dance. And poor, sweet-natured Maya is never able to climb above average at any academic pursuit (at one point, to her horror, a frustrated Ben kills a mouse that she was unable to properly direct through a maze).
So, effectively, this a movie about child abuse.
There’s a bunch of other stuff. There’s a Russian assistant (Andreas Apergis) who becomes more sexually frustrated the longer he lives with Ben and Catherine. There’s trouble in the marriage (the talented Colette has no trouble acting unhappy with her situation - being in the movie was probably motivation enough). There’s a hidden agenda with Gertz. And there’s ultimately a reckoning involving the custody of these lab rat children.
The movie doesn’t even take a stand, ultimately, on nature versus nurture, since the kids (whose personalities are not sharply drawn amidst all the noise) find solace in each other, and at least share that empathy. They also socialize immediately with other children, even though they’ve been raised in isolation.
There is really no sentiment, and as for this being a comedy (I had to look it up to be sure), there are no laughs. It’s not as if this is even a novel idea. As recently as last year, there was Brigsby Bear, which had an undeniable charm, even though it was about a young man (Kyle Mooney) who'd been raised in isolation as an experiment by a children’s TV programmer (Mark Hamill).
Ultimately, we are left with the psychological and behavioural conundrum, “What were these people thinking?”
Birthmarked. Directed by Emmanuel Hoss-Desmarais. Starring Toni Collette, Matthew Goode and Michael Smiley. Starts Friday, May 25 in Toronto.