Childbirth is one of the only depictions in movies that female actors can claim as their own (Billy Crystal, put your hand down). When we get a labor scene, the ladies can mug and cuss and chew scenery in whatever way they want and no male viewer has the right to question whether it feels authentic. So, as a male, watching Vanessa Kirby go through labor in the opening scene of Pieces of a Woman and actually feeling it, relating to it, is a pretty unique experience.
Kirby is Martha, who is way over-pregnant when she and her partner Sean (Shia LeBeouf in a beard you do not want to smell) get home with the new SUV her mother bought them. We already know something’s amiss because they are way too excited over a Toyota. They live in a nice Boston brownstone full of Design Within Reach furniture, she has a corner office in a sleek glass tower downtown, he’s a construction foreman on a major bridge project in the last union-run town on earth, and they have to have the mother buy them a $35,000 car? Somebody’s hiding something, and I’m guessing that something is logic and the screenwriter is the culprit.
But wow does Kirby give us a childbirthin’! Her belches and farts are totally realistic (they sound like Chipotle to me, but could be Taco Bell) as she contorts in every way imaginable to find a bearable position to settle her swollen belly. The sequence is done in a single take, the camera stumbling through hallways and rooms as it follows Sean doing Martha’s erratic bidding then running back to check on Martha moaning and farting.
Martha committed to having her first child at home using a midwife, but the one she’s been practicing with for months is right in the middle of another client’s labor. Martha demands she leave the other client immediately, because every woman in labor gets to turn into a Real Housewife whenever she wants. Instead of going to the hospital, the couple agree to use a substitute midwife recommended by the original one. If you’ve ever had a substitute teacher in school who has no idea of the lesson plan so just lets you read the whole period, you know what’s coming.
It’s awful to watch. Martha and Sean get to hold their newborn daughter for two minutes before the baby starts turning blue, the midwife unable to revive her. By the time the breathtaking and heartbreaking sequence is over, you’re ready to award this film Best Narrative Short. Too bad it’s a feature length movie.
Now the logic gaps start appearing like potholes on a dreary stretch of road. First and foremost, this coupling makes no sense in any world. Yes, opposites can attract, but LeBeouf, committed actor that he is, has been goaded too much lately by inexperienced directors to go down a rabbit hole of erratically violent characterizations. In the right movie, fine. But here, where you need to see something in him that the erudite, self-aware Martha would be attracted to, it’s bad casting and directing. When things get to the point where LeBeouf, loaded as he is with his off-screen behavior, is made to channel Sean’s grief by raping Martha, my annoyance tilted to disgust. There was absolutely no need for the narrative to go there, and you can just picture producer Martin Scorsese nodding approvingly on set. And LeBeouf being escorted back to rehab for the fourth time right afterward.
Then the plot turns to Martha’s overbearing mother, played by the brilliant but also miscast Ellen Burstyn. Kirby looks to be in her early 30s, while Burstyn is clearly pushing 80. And just when we agree to stretch for the movie’s sake and believe she could be late 60s, they dash that by giving her character a Holocaust Backstory™! And we get it through another display of the director’s inexperience, when he stops the narrative in its tracks to give Burstyn her Best Supporting Actress Monologue™.
The incongruities keep stumbling along. It seems the baby’s death is a set-up for a competing plot, itself a mash-up of B story lines from House and CSI. Martha’s mother and Sean orchestrate a wrongful death lawsuit against the substitute midwife, which Martha wants no part of. The lawyer, played by Sarah Snook from Succession (or maybe it’s Biden’s new press secretary?), is expensive, though, and mother’s pockets are only Toyota deep. So how do they pay her? No guess would be more idiotic than what we actually get: the lawyer agrees to take the case after sucking Sean’s cock. We saw Sean’s cock in the rape scene, and take it from an expert, it is not worth $300 an hour. How desperate are Boston women?
This movie goes through such machinations to say ‘Look at me, I’m serious filmmaking!” that it too often sidelines the simple, devastating narrative of a mother’s journey through the loss of a child.
Thank god we have Kirby to watch. It takes a lot of talent for a subtle, nuanced performance to pull our attention from all the dramatic showboating and belabored plot-making, and she feels like she’s in a different, much better, film. The acclaim she’s getting comes not just from the virtuoso performance in the opening, but from the novel way she navigates through the bereaved mother trope we’ve seen so many times. Refusing to play sympathetic without crossing over into unlikeable is tricky, and the breakthrough she saves for the climax feels genuinely cathartic instead of Screenwriting 101.
Will the filmmakers leave us with Kirby’s beautifully-paced and satisfying arc through grief? Nope! Someone told them Americans need their movies wrapped up with a happy bow, so we get a BS ending that nearly spoils the work Kirby has done.
The amateurishness of the production shows even in the editing, where repetitive close-ups of female body parts – literally pieces of a woman – are used as scene transitions.
Maybe they’d have had a better result if they’d titled this Pieces of a Good Movie.
Pieces of a Woman is currently streaming on Netflix.