Casually cruel, two old art-school friends face off in Egg, a small-scale satirical drama about motherhood, female friendship and marriage. Tina (Alysia Reiner), who is having a child via a surrogate, tells the pregnant Karen (Christina Hendricks) that she couldn’t stand having someone hanging off her breast all day. Karen retaliates that being pregnant makes her feel like a celebrity, and that she’s sorry for people who don’t have children. With a great deal of daring and more modest accomplishment, director Marianna Palka (the 2017 Sundance film Bitch) and first-time screenwriter Risa Mickenberg confront and undermine the cliches of the cold-hearted childless woman and the smugly blissful mother-to-be.
Tina and Karen’s competition plays out in real time, during a misbegotten dinner at Tina’s. The film suffers from a forced premise. How convenient that these two women, who have drifted apart since college, have come together with their spouses at such a life-changing moment. But after a creaky start, Egg comes through with terrific performances from Reiner and especially Hendricks, and with some scenes of piercing honesty.
Tina is a New York artist whose husband, Wayne (Gbenga Akinnagbe), lives off her money and success. Karen and her wealthy businessman husband, Doug (David Alan Basche), come from the suburbs for dinner at Tina’s art-filled apartment. The women have become so distant that their husbands have never met, and Tina is surprised that Karen is so hugely pregnant.
Even before the guests arrive, we see Wayne bristle at being controlled by his wife, and glimpse Tina’s competitiveness with Karen. Wearing a long halter dress, Tina says she wants to look “accomplished, inaccessibly tasteful, sexy.” It’s telling that instead she looks like she’s trying too hard.
Karen has long ago given up art for the life of a trophy wife, while Tina has been commissioned to do a museum installation about motherhood. In the film’s first act, which follows the chapter title “Tina,” she is bluntly condescending to Karen. Her plans for motherhood are ludicrous. She tells the guests that her soon-to-be-born child, from Wayne’s sperm and her egg, is part of her art project. She says about the surrogate, “You have to learn how to delegate.” Mickenberg’s dialogue lands like caricature rather than satire or a sign of defensiveness, which is where the film is actually heading.
While Reiner takes Tina over-the-top, Hendricks beautifully modulates Karen’s reactions. She is bemused about Tina’s life and even her affectatious home, in which the bathroom door is a transparent shower curtain. She seems docile but there is a slow burn evident just under the surface.
The pic finds its voice in act two, called “Tina and Karen.” The men leave to pick up the surrogate, Kiki, whose quirky-cute name telegraphs that she is about to arrive like a grenade at the dinner party. Meanwhile, Tina and Karen have a heart-to-heart. Their viciousness disappears as they briefly recapture the warmth, humor and honesty they so obviously shared many years before.
Doubts and insecurities about marriage and motherhood are unmasked on both sides. They reveal secrets. They make silly drawings of their husbands’ penises. Reiner matches Hendricks here in creating a totally believable, layered portrait of how old friends can rediscover the people they used to be, and how complicated the everyday images we project are. There is nothing unusual about the fears the women share. But in these vibrant scenes, Reiner and Hendricks do something few films manage: They create the sense that each of these characters could only share such raw truths with each other, and only in that moment. In no time they will be rivals again, another realistic touch.
What follows is all too easy to predict, though. Kiki arrives (played by Anna Camp, trapped in a hopeless role), apparently ditsy and seriously calculating, whining about the fact that her married lover’s wife is pregnant for the fifth time. She and Wayne are a little too cozy. Doug is a bit too interested in Kiki. At least one relationship is bound to unravel before the night is through.
A story that plays out over a single evening is a well-worn device, of course, and can be an effective cauldron for drama. Here it feels like the symptom of a low budget. The apartment that is the setting for most of the film holds a hodgepodge of art, from primitive to abstract styles, supposedly by Tina’s friends. That would explain the melange of styles, but it is out of character for the egotistical Tina. A detour to her studio on an upper floor of the building, with oversized photos of infants on the walls, feels like a desperate attempt to open up the action.
The press material describes Egg as satire, which is fair enough but does the film no favors. It works best as a drama laced with unblinkered truths about the sometimes ruthless, sometimes warm-hearted ways that women see themselves and each other.
Production company: Over. Easy.
Cast: Christine Hendricks, Anna Camp, Alysia Reiner, David Alan Basche, Gbenga Akinnagbe
Director: Marianna Palka
Screenwriter: Risa Mickenberg
Producers: Michele Ganeless, Alysia Reiner, David Alan Basche
Director of photography: Zalmira Gainza
Production designer: Sally Levi
Costume designer Jenn Rogien
Editor: Sophie Corra
Music: Jamie Jackson
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Narrative)