‘Baby Ruby’: Maternal ambivalence meets gothic terror


(3 stars)

The ravages of maternal ambivalence achieve heights of gothic terror in “Baby Ruby,” an intriguing and impressively assured writing-directing debut from playwright Bess Wohl.

Set in an attractively renovated house in the hyper-curated wilds of Upstate New York, this twisty psychological thriller stars Noémie Merlant as Jo, a lifestyle blogger and social media influencer who is getting ready to welcome her first child alongside husband Spencer (Kit Harington), an artisanal butcher.

Nora Ephron once said that everything is copy; in Jo’s world, everything is brand-able, including her upcoming blessed event. As “Baby Ruby” opens, Jo is obsessing over every detail of her self-produced baby shower. She’s throwing it herself because she’s an admitted perfectionist, but also because she can use the resulting pics of food, clothes and toys as irresistibly clickable content.

Wohl sets Jo up as the kind of shallow, self-absorbed millennial who can serve as the ideal foil for the humbling realities of motherhood. But once the title character arrives on the scene — in a sequence reminding viewers of just how dangerous and traumatic childbirth can be — Jo becomes a much messier character, literally and figuratively. Like such classics as “Rosemary’s Baby,” as well as more recent series like “Fleishman Is in Trouble,” “Baby Ruby” morphs from a social critique of how American society fails women along the entire spectrum of reproduction to a nuanced — and often uncomfortably candid — portrait of a new mother navigating profound anxiety, alienation, self-doubt and barely containable rage.

Merlant, who co-starred in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” does an outstanding job of expressing Jo’s competing emotions, which at their peak send her into hallucinations that are both dreamlike and startlingly real. Taking a page from “The Stepford Wives,” Wohl creates a community of “cool moms” who wear boho-chic straw hats and seem to float through motherhood on an effortless cloud of good vibes and cold rosé. As the darker realities of Jo’s world come into focus, “Baby Ruby” goes from eerie to creepy to outlandish, with the visual language of the film splitting off at pivotal moments into mirror images, shadows and other doubling motifs.

The cumulative effect is suitably destabilizing, and also soberingly grounded. In one of “Baby Ruby’s” most effective scenes, Jo’s mother-in-law, Doris (played by the wonderful Jayne Atkinson), confesses her own bout with postpartum depression, adding that the taboo of maternal ambivalence is what keeps women from telling one another essential truths — in this case, the essential contradiction of being both threat and protector to the children we simultaneously love, fear and resent.

The trick of a movie like “Baby Ruby” is always sticking the landing: In this case, Wohl ratchets up the narrative tension only to release it with a perfunctory, perhaps too-pat resolution. Still, “Baby Ruby” makes a valuable contribution to the emerging cinematic literature on the unspoken realities of women’s lived experience — with style, disarming honesty, and a steady and intelligent hand.

Unrated. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema; also available on multiple streaming platforms. Contains brief nudity and obscenity, as well as graphic horror and adult themes. 93 minutes.

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