Baby Ruby is a fascinating, at times messy exploration of postpartum depression that balances out some eerie visuals with strong themes about motherhood.
The decision of having kids is tough enough as it is. You’re told you’ll be signing off your life in favor of raising someone who will be carrying your blood for at least the first eighteen years of their lives, if not longer. Say goodbye to parties, any personal goals or hobbies, eating out at fancy restaurants, or simply going to the movie theater.
Yet, more often than not, when it comes to the mothers of these children, society downplays the hardships they will have to go through before, during, and after childbirth. The conversation is focused on the beauty of being a parent and caring for a “little you,” while things like postpartum depression are treated as taboos and people would rather avoid the topic altogether.
Bess Wohl’s directorial debut Baby Ruby follows Jo (Noémie Merlant, TÁR), a lifestyle online influencer whose world is turned upside down when she welcomes her newborn Ruby. At first, things seem pretty normal. Complicated, yes, but normal for the most part. Things shift, though, when Jo is unable to distinguish between her sinister paranoia as a new mother and what is actually real. She begins to suffer from postpartum depression, seeing everything and everyone as a threat, thinking Ruby is judging her as a bad mother, while her loved ones believe she might be losing her mind.
Noémie Merlant had a really tricky role to bring to life here because, ultimately, this is her show to run. She does have a supporting cast to play off of, but Wohl’s script is always laser focused on Jo and her psyche. In that way, Wohl is able to masterfully create an isolated atmosphere that puts you right in Jo’s shoes.
As the one in the character’s shoes, Merlant portrays the sense of restless isolation, dread, misery, and torture in such a tragic way. You can’t help but feel sympathy for a woman who only wants to be a good mother, but the weight of a traumatic labor and fear of what’s ahead is preventing her from doing so. The film’s stakes and sense of urgency work as well as they do because the main issue at hand is very much real, and you can see it being approached with the idea of sparking a needed conversation.
The rest of the cast has relatively less things to do compared to what Merlant is faced with in the movie. They are smaller roles, but important ones. Kit Harington (Game of Thrones) is in a very interesting position in his career after playing Jon Snow in the biggest TV sensation of the last decade. He has the opportunity to pick more experimental projects, and Baby Ruby is certainly that for the actor.
Harington is Jo’s husband Spencer, who is exactly the kind of man you’d expect from a premise like this. He constantly downplays his wife’s feelings, even if he means well. A lesser film would have treated a character such as Spencer as a villain, but he’s just here to juxtapose how oblivious men really are to the experience of motherhood and how simple they have it compared to women. Harington is quite solid here. It’s refreshing to see him in a different type of role and his back and forth with Merlant helps sell her state of mind.
Jayne Atkinson (Clarice), as Spencer’s mother Doris, is another highlight. She delivers a chilling monologue to Jo about what it means to be a mother: how children are the most wonderful thing that can happen to any parent, yet how they can drive someone crazy to the point of developing unpleasant thoughts. She even goes so far as to point out how women aren’t allowed to discuss these issues with each other because of the shame and disgust their loved ones can show upon being presented with these challenges.
There is a lot that works in Baby Ruby, but there are elements that knock it off its feet and make the film uneven. For example, trying to present this story through the lenses of a psychological horror thriller ends up being a double edged sword. It makes for some gnarly visuals that really do give you a sense of immersion and helps you understand Jo’s fears.
The problem starts when these sequences become a distraction from the core narrative. You could argue the horror aspect of the movie being overwhelming or distracting actually enhances the experience of watching a woman lose control of her own life. In theory, this is true, but as a result you’re sacrificing time for subplots that don’t really go anywhere. Jo has several encounters with other moms who seem to have sinister intentions, making her doubt the safety of her family, but that uneasy feeling was already present without the aid of that particular storyline.
In the end, Baby Ruby is a perfectly fine piece of experimental cinema that gets a lot of its points across. Does it manage to convey everything it is trying to say? Not always, although this remains an important story that required to be told the way it was. Sure, some of its genre bending components aren’t always pulled off well, but they do stay with you. They do force you to think critically about how we practically abandon mothers in their most vulnerable moments. It is a risky film that may not capture a lot of people’s attention and might even offend others, but it is a passion project from director Bess Wohl, who attempts to start a much needed conversation we’ve avoided for quite a long time.
Magnet Releasing will release Baby Ruby in US theaters and on demand February 3, 2023.