At no point in John Lee’s False Positive is the audience likely to think that anything is copacetic at the Gattaca-like fertility center where Lucy (Ilana Glazer, who co-wrote the film’s screenplay) and Adrian (Justin Theroux) go for help to get pregnant. Between the blond nurses with their glassy smiles, the cloyingly paternalistic demeanor of Dr. Hindle (Pierce Brosnan), and the meaningful looks shared by seemingly everyone but Lucy, the only question is, how inhumane will the clinic’s ulterior motive turn out to be?
The last person to pick up on that, though, is Lucy. A marketing executive whose duties seem to entirely consist of chatting with others at the office and ordering lunch, she drifts through the film like a ghost coming out of a lengthy acid trip. Uncertain about nearly everything in her life except that she would really like a baby and swimming in support from nearly everyone around her, Lucy initially suggests a cosseted and none-too-bright innocent.
Once Lucy becomes pregnant, all that support starts to feel like not-so-subtle undercutting. Her boss, Greg (Josh Hamilton), turns the dial up on the go-girl theatrics (“I’m fighting for you!”), and his closeness to Lucy takes on an oozing quality. Even after Lucy lands a big account, he still has her ordering lunch for the guys at the office. Whether Lucy is at the clinic or talking with friends or Adrian, no matter how many times she worries that something isn’t quite right with her pregnancy, the dismissive assurances that everything will be fine come to suggest an especially demeaning type of gaslighting. Whenever Lucy voices her concerns, there seems to always be someone ready to condescendingly laugh, “Mommy brain!”
False Positive’s story is primarily a tracking of Lucy’s increasingly agitated state of mind as she begins to believe that not only is her pregnancy at risk, but that the back-slapping bonhomie shared by Hindle and Adrian, his onetime mentee, points toward something that she isn’t supposed to know. And Lucy becomes even more unmoored once she’s told that she’s pregnant with triplets—two boys in one fetal sac and a girl in the other—and for the sake of her health must decide which baby or babies to perform a “selective reduction” procedure on. At the same time, she’s undergoing a bounce of euphoria from a work promotion, giddily announcing to Adrian at one point, “I could be one of those women who has it all!”
Feeling at times like a new-millennium gloss on Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, False Positive threads classic horror-film tropes with a woozy, partially comic sensibility but doesn’t fully commit to this approach. There are long, dark hallways for Lucy to slowly inch her way through, nightmares that could have actually happened, and moments of body horror that signal that all is not well here. At the same time, the film feels as though it’s also living in a Broad City kind of universe (Lee worked on the Comedy Central show with Glazer), with its light satire on urban archetypes and transparently rickety scaffolding of reality.
For much of the film, that combination successfully creates an unsettling, if at times over-obvious, sense of unease—at least until a strangely off-key gag in a climactic scene throws things off-balance. But because False Positive doesn’t show its audience much of Lucy and Adrian before they first go to the clinic, there’s no baseline for viewers to reference as her paranoia spikes and her perspective begins to warp. That approach may be purposeful, but it drains a truly curious ending of much of its potential drama.
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