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The Reelist: What to Expect When You're Expecting

In observance of the release of The Business of Being Born, we gather a terrific list of titles that offer nuanced, unsentimental looks at pregnancy.

As many critics noted recently in various year-end lists and wrap-ups, a serious pregnancy meme emerged in American filmmaking last year, thanks in no small part to the much-discussed breakout comedies Knocked Up and Juno, as well as smaller films such as Bella and Waitress (which appears on the list below). Out in theaters this week, Abby Epstein and Ricki Lake's new documentary The Business of Being Born (TFF '07) offers a decidedly different look at pregnancy via a probing examination of the way childbirth is managed in America today. This week, in honor of the film's release, we take a look at some provocative treatments of pregnancy on screen. Rather than focus on three-hankie date movies, we've highlighted complex stories that examine the complexity of pregnancy, often delving into the remorse, fear, doubt, recrimination, and financial hardship which can accompany the glow of expecting.
Enter to Win this week's Reelist on DVD

A Place in the Sun

Dir. George Stevens, 1951
Charming but driftless George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) takes a job at his industrialist uncle's factory in order to learn the business from the bottom up. Though he's been warned not to date any women at the company, he becomes involved with assembly-line worker Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), but soon forgets all about her when he falls for radiant socialite Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor) at a high-society party. Only Alice won't let him go that easily, because she is pregnant with his child. As Angela begins planning her future together with George, Alice demands that he marry her or she'll expose him to his society friends. A tragic series of events follows as George tries to come to terms with his feelings for both women, and his place in society. Based on Theodore Dreiser's landmark novel of social realism An American Tragedy (which had been previously adapted in 1931), A Place in the Sun won six Oscars and was selected in 1991 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.

12 More
  

Vera Drake
Dir. Mike Leigh, 2004

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Dir. Jacques Demy, 1964

Ladybird, Ladybird
Dir. Ken Loach, 1994

Fargo
Dir. Joel and Ethan Cohen, 1996

Palindromes
Dir. Todd Solonz, 2004

Splendor
Dir. Gregg Araki, 1999

Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Dir. Amy Heckerling, 1982

Our Song
Dir. Jim McCay, 2000

The Cider House Rules
Dir. Lasse Hallström, 1999

A Child Is Born
Dir. Lloyd Bacon, 1932

Father's Little Dividend
Dir. Vincente Minnelli, 1951

A Farewell to Arms
Dir. Frank Borzage, 1932

The Snapper

Dir. Stephen Frears, 1993
Venerable British director Stephen Frears adapted the second in Irish novelist Roddy Doyle's big-hearted Barrytown trilogy, about the trials and tribulations of a working-class Dublin family, and would go on to film the third, The Van, a few years later. The Snapper concerns the clan's oldest child Sharon, who, at 20, informs her parents that she's "up a pole" (pregnant), but steadfastly refuses to reveal the father's identity, even when the neighborhood starts gossiping. Like last year's hit Juno, the film takes a resolutely unconventional view of young unwed pregnancy that is by turns comic and poignant, straight through to the climactic childbirth scene, in which the eponymous "snapper" (which refers to a baby, not a fish, in Irish slang) finally joins the world.

Polish Wedding

Dir. Theresa Connelly, 1998
A classic intergenerational ethnic drama, Theresa Connelly's directorial debut is a semi-autobiographical story about a large Polish-American family living in Detroit. Matriarch Jadzia (Lena Olin) is happily married to bakery worker Bolek (Gabriel Byrne), with four sons who are at her beck and call, and one rebellious adolescent daughter Hala (Claire Danes). Despite her love for Bolek, Jadzia has carrying on an affair with Roman (Rade Serbedzija) for years, and soon discovers that Hala has followed in her footsteps, sneaking off in the night to visit handsome neighborhood cop Russell. When Hala finds out that she is pregnant, Jadzia presses Russell to marry Hala and spare the family any shame. Polish Wedding premiered at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.

Brink of Life

Dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1958
This largely forgotten Bergman film, made just after the Swedish master's classic Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal, is a character study of three expectant mothers in a maternity ward, each grappling with her future. Though slighter and less profound than Bergman's better-known films, the director's trademark interest in existential dilemmas is fully present in the subtext, and the film's trio of actresses—including frequent Bergman collaborators Bibi Andersson and Ingrid Thulin—were feted with a collective acting award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Waitress

Dir. Adrienne Shelly, 2007
Waitress is the story of Jenna (Keri Russell), a sassy baker in a rural town trapped in a loveless marriage, who saves her winnings from pie-baking contests so that she can leave her abusive husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto). She is horrified to discover she's become pregnant, and soon falls into a relationship with the handsome new local doctor as a last attempt at happiness. As her external circumstances change, her feelings about the child she's carrying begin to evolve. Waitress was the third feature film made by veteran independent writer/director/actress Adrienne Shelley, and tragically it was her last work: She was murdered in her New York apartment shortly before the film was accepted by the Sundance Film Festival, where it played to enthusiastic audiences.

A Slightly Pregnant Man

Dir. Jacques Demy, 1973
A decade after singing her way through pregnancy in Jacques Demy's landmark musical fairy tale The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Catherine Deneuve found herself in another pregnancy-themed Demy film—only this time it was her husband, improbably played by Marcello Mastroianni, who was with child. The film's farcical intentions are evident in its original French title, which translates to "The Most Important Event Since Man First Set Foot on the Moon." Audiences stayed away in droves upon the film's release, but the historical curiosity of seeing two legends of postwar European cinema handle such frivolous material makes it worth a watch, and it's certainly superior to such later pregnant-man atrocities as Billy Crystal's Rabbit Test and Arnold Schwarzenegger's Junior.

Saved!

Dir. Brian Dannelly, 2003
In this madcap satire of teenage religious fundamentalism, Mary (Jena Malone) is a devout Christian with good Christian friends and the perfect Christian boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust). Her life as a senior at American Eagle Christian High School seems perfect until Dean tells her he might be gay. Mary does everything she can to make him straight, including offering him her virginity, but Dean really is gay, and his parents ship him off to a treatment center, leaving Mary alone and confused... and pregnant. Ostracized by her friends, she finds herself questioning her faith, and bonding with the school's few nonconformists. The film's central premise, about the similarity between high school social cliques and those of organized religion, might not be especially revelatory, but the results are entertaining. A musical version is in development for a spring 2008 premiere.

Citizen Ruth

Dir. Alexander Payne, 1996
Before he graduated to making wry dramedies about aging such as Sideways and About Schmidt, Alexander Payne was a first-class satirist, as evidenced by Citizen Ruth, his debut feature. Laura Dern has buckets of fun as the titular character, a hopelessly irresponsible woman with a fondness for inhalants and a habit of getting knocked up. After another of her frequent drug arrests, Ruth finds out she's got a fifth bun in the oven. When the judge, not wanting to get stuck with another ward of the state, offers leniency if Ruth will have an abortion, he unwittingly makes her a lightning rod in the battle between the pro-life and pro-choice movements. The film gleefully skewers the hypocrisy of both sides of the abortion debate, and remains extremely potent more than a decade after its release.

All About My Mother

Dir. Pedro Almodovar, 1999
In what may have been a cinematic first, Penelope Cruz plays an HIV-positive pregnant nun in Pedro Almódovar's acclaimed Oscar winner. Her character, Sister Rosa, could only have been plausible in the context of Almodóvar's tragicomic, soap-operatic vision of modern Spain, a world filled with frantically star-crossed transvestites, hookers, junkies, and actors. As with all of his other deviants and misfits, Almodovar refuses to pass any sort of judgment on the character, treating her with sensitivity and grace. All About My Mother was the second of three films Almodovar and Cruz have done together, which also include 1997's Live Flesh and 2006's Volver.

Maria Full of Grace

Dir. Joshua Marston, 2004
This harrowing, strikingly realistic tale centers on a 17-year-old Colombian girl named Maria, who helps support her family with a miserable job at a flower plantation until she becomes pregnant and is fired. In search of work in Bogotá, she becomes entangled with a drug cartel, which convinces her to work as a drug mule. Carrying 62 pellets of heroin in her stomach, she survives a tense flight to the United States with two other mules, but after witnessing the casual cruelty of the drug traffickers on the other side, she flees to Queens, New York, where more trouble awaits. Maria Full of Grace avoids the obvious potential to be a preachy message movie with its excruciating, straightforward specificity. Joshua Marston's feature debut was developed at the Sundance Screenwriter's Lab, and premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. Catalina Sandino Moreno's portrayal of Maria made her just the third Latin American actress ever to be nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards.

Children of Men

Dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2007
Adapted by Alfonso Cuarón from P.D. James' 1992 novel, this apocalyptic thriller takes place in 2027, on a planet where two decades of human infertility have left mankind on the brink of extinction, the world's youngest citizen has been murdered, and what's left of civilized society is on the verge of anarchy. Against his better judgment, disillusioned bureaucrat Theo Faron (Clive Owen) gets caught up in the battle over the fate of Kee, a young refugee who has inexplicably become pregnant, and serves as her guardian as they seek out a mysterious organization called The Human Project, purportedly dedicated to curing the planet of infertility. With its obvious religious allegory, explicit references to the War on Terror, and use of verite-style camerawork, Children of Men is an action movie like no other. Its seriousness made it unpopular at the box office, though it seems to be developing a cult following.

Rosemary's Baby

Dir. Roman Polanski, 1968
Based on Ira Levin's best-seller, Roman Polanski's first American film is, for some, the finest horror movie of all time, even though it uses none of the gross-out tactics which would become so commonplace after the release of The Exorcist five years later. It succeeds, masterfully, by focusing on the psychological dread of that most vulnerable and sacred of social figures—the pregnant woman—as the apparent reality around her begins to erode. Mia Farrow plays the film's sweetly naïve protagonist, who conceives after a disturbing night that leaves her with a faint memory of being violated by a demonic presence; John Cassavetes is her slimeball actor husband in league with the nosy neighbors next door. In retrospect, the film seems to signal the death of '60s idealism: It eerily presages the Manson Family Murders a year later, in which Polanski's wife Sharon Tate, then eight-and-a-half months pregnant, was one of the victims, and its exterior shots are of New York's Dakota building, where John Lennon—whose music inspired Manson—was assassinated in 1980.

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