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‘Baby Ruby’ review: What happens when your bundle of joy isn’t as joyful?

First-time director Bess Wohl shows the difficulties of motherhood using Noémie Merlant’s performance as an effective conduit.

Magnet Releasing

In the middle part of Baby Ruby, Josephine (Noémie Merlant) wonders if her newborn is angry with her. Taking it one step further, she believes her baby is punishing her for some reason. I’m sure you’re asking yourself how an infant could develop a vindictive motive against their parents. That’s way too farfetched. However, the directorial debut of playwright Bess Wohl seeks to unpack the many layers of postpartum depression within slight nods to the horror genre. It’s not only that mothers have to deal with the immense outward changes of re-arranging their lives to raise a child – it’s also the physical and mental challenges they have to go through on their own. Much of that is not understood and, unfortunately, downplayed to discuss at large.

The constant onset of sleep deprivation and cries at 3 am can wear anybody down. Wolhl’s story speaks in smoke screens in hopes the viewer can latch on to the actual message. A fluid vagueness scratching the surface of specific themes and characters might be frustrating. However, a completely bought-in performance from Merlant draws you in to try at least to see the forest from the trees.

But at least the start of Baby Ruby seems okay – maybe a little bit too calm on the precipice of having a child. Josephine and her husband Spencer (Kit Harington) have renovated a farmhouse just in time for their baby shower. Her friends shower her with compliments in extension to her lifestyle blog, and Josephine takes the time to answer every single comment personally. In terms of advice, Jo isn’t worried at all – she even assures her friends that barely anything will change. Much of this is rooted in the life she portrays in the digital space because people love bright and shiny.

The bluntness of reality hits once Josephine has the baby. Right after the delivery, the audience sees a brief depiction of childbirth's physical toll on a mother. When the young couple gets home with their bundle of joy, Ruby, that’s where the hysteria starts to kick in for Josephine. We all know babies cry, but it seems like Ruby is crying more than the average infant. Juan Pablo Ramírez’s camera work makes things feel claustrophobic – much like the world is coming down all around our new mother.

Soon after, Ruby’s wailings feel like audible knives, and Josephine starts to be plagued by grim hallucinations. Doris (Jayne Atkinson), Spencer’s mother, tries to comfort her with stories of her difficulties with early motherhood – only increasing Josephine’s anxiety to a fever pitch. Not to mention there are a group of mothers led by an overly cordial lady named Shelly (Meredith Hagner) who doesn’t seem tripped up by this monumental life change. They even complement Jo on her cheese soufflé recipe. Stunned and confused, she asks the women, “how is this so easy for you?”

The answer isn’t clear-cut if you refer to a certain straightforwardness in Wohl’s story. Much is left up to ambiguity and interpretation. A more than a worthy conduit to show that is Merlant, who takes command of the film. Her ability to convey a vulnerable and honest side of Josephine will make the audience sympathize with how complex this situation is. Spencer’s character is mainly relegated to a side-supportive role clearing the way for this to revolve around his counterpart.

Josephine’s inklings are only heightened by a biting incident while teething Ruby and accidentally pulling her earring. Then, it feels like Baby Ruby becomes a battle for Josephine to prove herself to her newborn. Much of the social satire about the appearance of influencers in the social media space is dropped for a more macabre tone. In the sensory overload from the viewpoint of exhaustion, Josephine is just looking for something tangible to cling to. That, for the most part, is effectively construed to the audience.

Where things fall short is the film electing to partake in some classic horror tropes to up the scare factor. Also, some notable plot points are left hanging on a whim – one has to think if at least a couple were brought to fullness, it would have tightened the efficiency of this story at large. Being a parent is ... well, hard, coupled with the expectations pushed upon mothers being nurturers at the expense of themselves. During a quick dinner out, Josephine expresses fears that she’s losing herself to Spencer. Much of her anger is trying to claw back that sense of control.

Baby Ruby provides a psychological thriller voice of the many trials of parenthood. With its immediate voice, we see the toll it takes on Josephine. Given that, the larger beats of presentation and expectations of parents presenting themselves in a way that makes this process looks effortless gets sacrificed a bit.