It’s funny to find horror reassuring. Yet as someone who’s given birth twice, that’s my reaction to Ilana Glazer’s False Positive. The film is out today on Hulu, and let’s just say it’s a wild ride (I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum). Written by and starring one of the creators of Broad City in Ilana Glazer, False Positive is a Rosemary’s Baby-type film but from a feminist perspective, a look into all the ways society makes femmes and particularly pregnant people feel crazy. Clearly, this narrative, this look into the grotesquerie of motherhood needs a woman’s perspective.
The film follows Glazer as Lucy, a heroine who has totally drunk the Kool-Aid around motherhood. She’s been trying for two years to get pregnant with husband Adrian (Justin Theroux), believing giving birth will fulfill her and turn her into “one of those women who have it all.” But from the beginning, False Positive is all eerie camera angles and haunting music, letting us know that Lucy will end up very far from the “fairy-tale ending” that a characters repeatedly mention.
Things begin to go horribly wrong, with False Positive finding its drama in the discourse around modern pregnancy. Take the idea of the “mommy brain,” a phrase uttered so many times in this film as to lose its meaning. Scientifically investigated, the idea that pregnant people are naturally confused, forgetful, or incompent makes our concerns easy to dismiss. It’s supposed to be cute or silly, but when it’s weaponized, as it is against Lucy, it’s anything but, contributing to her losing control over so many aspects of her life. In one scene, Lucy and Adrian are celebrating and he pressures her into drinking champagne, even though she doesn’t want to. Here, Adrian exerts his power over her in a simple but damaging way, and his refusal to respect her wishes only gets bigger as the film goes on. The men in her office don’t respect her privacy and want to use her pregnancy to land a new client, regardless of whether or not she’s comfortable with it. When it works, they sideline her, citing her maternity leave as something that would cause them to “lose momentum.” It doesn’t matter that they’re using her ideas, her pregnancy, her performance. She just needs to order lunch.
And that’s the conceit at the heart of False Positive: The film takes seriously the real fear and loss inherent in being a pregnant person.
This powerlessness extends even into the pregnant person’s own body. It’s literally not yours anymore — you’re officially sharing it. When I was pregnant, I oscillated between feeling like the tiny organism was a little bundle of joy or a foreign creature feeding off my life force, and so does Lucy. She’s enamored with the idea of a daughter but sometimes horrified by the fact of it. This lack of control over one’s own body can go beyond existential dread — whether it’s extreme and potentially dangerous discomfort like for the women who get hyperemesis gravidarum or like the fictional Lucy and too many others who survive rape. But however it manifests, too often the message to pregnant people is that this powerlessness is just something we’re supposed to swallow as part of becoming a mom.
But it shouldn’t be. It so clearly shouldn’t be. And that’s the conceit at the heart of False Positive: The film takes seriously the real fear and loss inherent in being a pregnant person. Glossing over valid concerns about losing your career, identity, and autonomy to the cult of motherhood is crazy making.
And this is part of the reason False Positive works so well: that sometimes being a mom feels like being perpetually gaslighted. Take my own induction into motherhood. I knew I needed to go to the hospital, but neither my husband nor my doula believed me. I had to convince them. My husband actually missed the birth of our firstborn because the doctor (a woman) told him it would be a while and to go move the car. Everyone thought I was overreacting, being hysterical, dramatic, or weak. No one entertained the possibility that I knew best what my body was telling me. (I did have a very short labor, like my mom did and as I’d told the doula and my OB-GYN ahead of time.) Neat. Distrusting women, and minimizing their concerns, feels like the default in our culture right now. It’s horrifying.
As a non-evil midwife tells Lucy partway through, there’s power and strength in creating humans. We just have to see it that way.
I don’t want to end on horror, though. False Positive doesn’t — or at least that’s not how I read the ending. Because there’s also power, so much power in motherhood. When my husband tries to take credit for something like my daughter’s nose, I remind him that he didn’t make anything. I built our beautiful babies from my own body, and all he did was give me half a blueprint. As a non-evil midwife tells Lucy partway through, there’s power and strength in creating humans. We just have to see it that way (and somehow convince society at large to do so, too). In the end, Lucy does reclaim her power and her narrative, exacting vengeance against those who would take advantage of her and rewriting her narrative to be the one she consents to, even if it does take some magical realism to make it happen.
It’s this broader perspective I wish we had more of, the one that portrays motherhood in all its contradictions. We need more films that humanize the role — that dispel the expectations, and free us all to name the problems we’re facing. Films like False Positive help to redefine the narrative of motherhood not around self-sacrifice but rather self-love. And if that isn’t affirming, I don’t know what is.
False Positive is available to stream on Hulu.