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Some films provide such obvious American remake fodder that you just want to draw a protective circle around them to ensure that people experience the unassuming charms of the original. Norwegian director Yngvild Sve Flikke’s raucous, rude and ultimately poignant pregnancy comedy is an excellent example. Propelled by the internal quarrel of a 23-year-old cartoonist who discovers she’s expecting too late to do anything about it, Ninjababy is funny and insightful, imaginative and unsentimental. The movie offers a fresh take on a familiar situation through its unhesitant embrace of a protagonist who makes no apologies for her chaotic approach to life-changing decisions. “A selfish, shitty person” is how she describes herself.
Freely adapted by Johan Fasting, director Flikke and illustrator Inga H. Sætre from the latter’s graphic novel Fallteknikk, which translates as “Fall Technique,” Ninjababy goes against conventional narrative expectations. It deftly skirts the standard epiphanies of maternal instinct and declines to pursue the signposted rom-com destination even while making us eagerly crave it. Yet this is a sweet, satisfying reflection on stumbling toward emotional maturity that should resonate with young women in particular as it springboards from back-to-back Berlin and SXSW premieres into specialized distribution.
The film’s most distinctive feature is the animated element of simple line drawings by Sætre depicting the growing life form that has been hiding out undetected for six and a half months in the uterus of Rakel (Kristine Kujath Thorp). A devotee of beer, recreational drugs and sex with no attachments, she has zero interest in being a mother. “It’s a fucking sneaky ninjababy who thinks it can chill there for nine months and then sneak out,” she says peevishly. The bandit mask on the barely formed little blob is a sign of its uninvited presence.
It’s Rakel’s housemate and best friend Ingrid (Tora Dietrichson) who first guesses she might be pregnant by her slight weight gain, increased boobage, suddenly queasy sense of smell and unquenchable thirst for tropical fruit juice. But minimal visibility makes her assume she’s just a few weeks along, pinpointing the only possible father as kind, endearingly awkward aikido instructor Mos (Nader Khademi), who “smells like butter” and whose powerful swimmers appear to have cleared the double hurdle of the pill and a condom.
For Rakel, an abortion is the only answer, but when she learns at the hospital that she’s too far advanced, the situation gets complicated. That also means Mos is not the father. By a process of elimination, she narrows it down to “Dick Jesus” (Arthur Berning), a stoner so named for his ample endowment, who’s even less ready to be a parent than Rakel.
As she weighs her options and decides on giving up the baby for adoption, the opinionated fetus (voiced by Herman Tømmeraas) takes up residence in her head as much as her womb. The unborn child’s disparaging views range from amusing digs at Rakel’s choice in men (“You serious?” asks incredulous Ninjababy upon meeting Dick Jesus. “You let this guy fuck you?”) to needling her with guilt (“I’ve got fetal alcohol syndrome”).
What makes the movie work is less the potentially gimmicky Look Who’s Talking-type device of mouthy infant wisdom than the pleasure of watching fully developed, fallibly human characters fumble their way through a tricky situation. Played by Thorp with a scrappy defensiveness to match the physical clutter with which she surrounds herself, Rakel is a mess and quite determined to stay that way for as long as she pleases. But even at her most abrasive and irresponsible she’s extremely likable.
Balancing humor with stealth emotional depth, the script burrows into the encroaching conflict of a woman who wants her baby out of her body and her life as soon as possible but can’t help feeling a growing sense of attachment and a proprietary attitude to its future welfare. She gets picky about wanting to avoid rich parents and the creation of another entitled brat, a concern manifested aggressively when she attends a pre-adoption group for prospective parents and her withering judgments appear as scrawled text on the screen alongside each couple. From there, it’s a short hop to accusations of racism hurled at those who have applied only within Norway.
Director Flikke’s light touch keeps things buoyant even as Rakel gets more tightly wound. The relationships are as well drawn as the individual characters, with the principal figures all coming together in a farcical collision after Mos resurfaces, his shy romantic interest undimmed by Rakel’s pregnancy.
Khademi is a delight, his character the antithesis of the dudes randomly spraying their seed left and right according to a theoretically shaky feminist rant by Rakel in which Ingrid points out her misuse of the word “patriarchy.” Feelings between Rakel and Mos develop during an impromptu date with a bunch of fantasy war-game nerds; when he gets up and makes breakfast the next morning, he seems the perfect partner. But that tidy outcome hits obstacles when Dick Jesus shows up suddenly liking the idea of himself as a father, followed by Rakel’s older half-sister Mie (Sylva Nymoen), whose inability to conceive a child makes her warm to the idea of adopting.
There’s a lovely shift, underscored by gentle modulation of Kåre Christoffer Vestrheim’s playful music and Sætre’s interstitial animation, into a more pensive mood. The cartoon elements always stay the right side of cutesy, with flickering specks to show the stirrings of Rakel’s heart and angry scribbles crossing out the faces of anyone attempting to talk to her when she’s down. As the baby’s health appears in danger close to her delivery date and she’s confined to the hospital awaiting test results, exchanges between suddenly fatalistic Rakel and the child inside her become quite touching. “I’ve been a cool fetus,” it says. “Didn’t make you fat or sick. Why don’t you like me?”
With unforced quirks and a gradual exposure of genuine heart, the screenplay paves the way for any number of predictable outcomes. It’s a credit to this modest comedy that it avoids pat happy endings and opts instead for an imperfect resolution steeped in bittersweet melancholy — one which gives Rakel the time and space to figure out who she is rather than have that dictated by circumstance.
Production company: Motlys
Cast: Kristine Kujath Thorp, Nader Khademi, Arthur Berning, Tora Dietrichson, Silya Nymoen, Herman Tømmeraas
Director: Yngvild Sve Flikke
Screenwriters: Johan Fasting, Yngvild Sve Flikke, Inga H. Sætre, based on the graphic novel Fallteknikk by Sætre
Producer: Yngve Sæther
Director of photography: Marianne Bakke
Production designer: Tuva Hølmebakk
Costume designer: Marianne Sembsmoen
Music: Kåre Christoffer Vestrheim
Editor: Karen Gravås
Sound designer: Hugo Ekornes
Director of animation: Inga H. Sætre
Casting: Mia Jensen
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Global)
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