THE STORY – The tightly scripted world of a vlogger and influencer unravels after she becomes a mother.
THE CAST – Noémie Merlant, Kit Harington & Meredith Hagner
THE TEAM – Bess Wohl (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 93 Minutes
Nothing is what it seems on social media. Regarding lifestyle blogs, in particular, we often see carefully curated glimpses of people’s lives. Measuring oneself against unattainable models of perfection has found its way to nearly every aspect of life, from romantic relationships and career paths to parenthood. For Jo (Noémie Merlant), a pregnant lifestyle entrepreneur and the protagonist of writer-director Bess Wohl’s debut feature “Baby Ruby,” expectations surrounding motherhood become a waking nightmare. Jo’s blog ‘Love, Joséphine’ covers topics such as how to throw a DIY baby shower and how to create the most soothing nursery. Her readers’ heart-eyed comments of validation give weight to a belief growing inside her: that there is a perfectly planned guide she can create and follow to welcome a newborn baby into the world. But nothing could prepare her for baby Ruby. As Jo tries to navigate this new chapter of life, she’s forced to confront difficult realizations about herself in a nightmarish realm of existence where nothing is what it seems. While the screenplay can be thematically repetitive, “Baby Ruby” finds an emotionally truthful anchor in Noémie Merlant to convey a new mother’s postpartum depression.
In the eyes of her colleagues and readers, Jo can do it all. She’s a successful entrepreneur complimented for her ability to increase readership, engage with her audience in real-time, and make a move upstate, all with a baby on the way. From the beginning of the film, Jo is in control. Her character is introduced in the comfort of her picturesque home. She’s planning her own baby shower, cutting out the letters of Ruby’s name for an inviting welcome sign. Her husband, Spencer (Kit Harington), looks on adoringly and questions why she’s the one planning this shower when it could’ve been taken care of for her. But Jo wants the shower to be perfect; nobody else can be trusted with this responsibility. This sense of distrust between Jo and her surroundings intensifies when Ruby is born and adds suspicion to the supporting characters in the story. In one memorable scene between Jo and her mother-in-law Doris (Jayne Atkinson), Doris vocalizes the guilt of not having an immediate bond with babies and brings up how difficult it is to talk about these subjects to one another. Jo can attest to this; she doesn’t often confide in other characters about her experience. Instead, her emotions take control and dictate the direction this film goes in.
“Baby Ruby” challenges conversations around what it means to be a good mother and how the definition is often unfairly measured by how well they fit a stereotypical mother role. The supporting characters channel such stereotypes, from Jo’s well-rested neighboring “super moms” (ironically avid readers of ‘Love, Joséphine’), to her attentive mother-in-law who knows best, to her husband who “effortlessly” gets Ruby to stop crying whenever he takes care of her. The film explores an exciting dichotomy between realistic and filtered expectations of motherhood and the extent to which social media amplifies the latter. Jo channels the question, how do mothers hold it all together? What secret answer does everyone have? When Jo does ask these questions to one of the neighboring moms Shelly (Meredith Hagner), who she meets under slightly intimidating circumstances at a baby store in an earlier scene, Shelly replies with, “trust your instincts.” Hagner’s excellent delivery resonates with dark humor. The ridiculousness of expecting parents always to have all the answers comes through. But the tone feels oddly out of place, considering the film leans more purposefully into horror than it does absurdity.
The story structure and visuals of “Baby Ruby” often mirror the emotional transition Jo experiences before and after giving birth. The closer Jo is to giving birth, the more the film explores nightmarish scenes. For instance, the appearance of a frowning baby balloon in a hospital room or an unsettling stroller jump scare in broad daylight. Overall, the film makes strong use of elements often found in horror films. Jo’s house, nestled in the middle of the woods, evokes isolation and loneliness, an extension of her emotional experience as a new mother. The house is claustrophobic, closing in on her as though she’s trapped in her own mind. Mind-bending visuals show Jo multiplied as though she’s split into two selves. In addition to the film’s setting and editing, which evoke horror, so too does the portrayal of motherhood.
From “Carrie” and “The Babadook” to “Hereditary,” dynamics between mothers and children are often presented as strained in the horror film genre. “Baby Ruby” nears similar territory in its exploration of this dynamic. Jo’s feelings of “underperforming” as a mother, her resentment towards Ruby, and her fears about leaving Ruby for the first time, conjure up images that feel plucked out of a horror film. Thematically and visually, “Baby Ruby” excels at eliciting fear from a place of universal truths. After all, the film takes two of humanity’s most prominent psychological fears — the unknown and being alone — and shapes both to the specificity of Jo experiencing motherhood for the first time. Not only is she faced with a life transformation she’s emotionally unprepared for, but the thought of going through it alone is incredibly isolating. The film’s balance of horror elements creates the uneasy feeling of watching someone’s world shift on its axis.
Jo’s life before she becomes a parent is practically non-existent in the film. Nevertheless, Noémie Merlant brings an alluring quality to this character, to the point where it’s easy to sense a substantial change has taken place within Jo mentally. As the narrative is told closely from Jo’s perspective and focuses on the visual interpretation of her emotions, the film hinges on Merlant’s ability as an actor of compelling emotional truth to ground the story. Her performance is filled with refreshing spontaneity, and she expertly navigates the film’s tonal shifts from the scary to the surreal. She weathers a rollercoaster of emotions, specifically around postpartum depression. “Baby Ruby” highlights just how hidden this side of motherhood is — from the shame and stigma of not sharing what’s socially accepted to the lack of health resources for women to access proper treatment. The film admirably encourages conversation around a taboo subject by engaging in the internal conflict between Jo and herself. Who she once was is constantly at odds with the person she’s becoming and the type of mother she wants to be.
While the messages of “Baby Ruby” resonate, the film doesn’t fully land as a whole. There are breakthrough moments (for instance, a compelling scene in which a month of Jo’s life passes by literally overnight) where the film could’ve moved beyond its themes to a more thought-provoking place. But Wohl works through engaging subject matter in repetitive ways, and as a consequence, the story unfolds in circles. While the narrative starts strong and does incorporate interesting horror elements throughout, the direction takes a drastically surreal turn in the final act, and the absurdity of this moment is subsequently abandoned. The swing Wohl takes is admirable but doesn’t stick the landing. Nor do the one-too-many endings, which feel anti-climactic as they primarily convey what the film had already been able to communicate (far more subtly) earlier on.
In exploring a realm where nothing is as it seems, there are many directions one could go in. “Baby Ruby” finds strength in horror elements and intriguing plays on the concept of time to tell a truthfully imperfect story about motherhood. Stigma shrouds so many conversations about being a mother. The specificity brought to the topic of postpartum depression sheds light on how motherhood can be both a blissful and isolating experience. It’s the isolation that “Baby Ruby” heavily engages with, to the point where much of what happens on the screen holds a mirror to the way Jo feels inside. The film constantly poses the question, which moments are fiction and non-fiction? Where is the line drawn between one’s real self and the more carefully curated one? Led by the anchor of Noémie Merlant’s performance, Bess Wohl creates a visceral conversation with this debut feature about the harmful stigmas and expectations of motherhood. Even beyond the specificity of being a parent, “Baby Ruby” speaks to a universal feeling of losing oneself after a significant life change and struggling to face or even recognize their new self in the process.