'Birthmarked': Film Review

A misguided-science yarn that's not ready to emerge from the lab.
3/30/2018

Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais imagines an experiment in which scientist parents (Toni Collette and Matthew Goode) try to raise kids to do the opposite of what their genes dictate.

Experiments in child-rearing have gone much worse than the one depicted in Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais' Birthmarked, in which two married scientists try to raise their kids to become the opposite of what genetics would predict. But the fictional accounts of such misguided ventures are usually more entertaining than this well-meaning misfire, which never sells its premise and looks shoddy when compared to fictions that had a pretty obvious influence on it. Commercial prospects are slim, though the presence of Toni Collette and Matthew Goode as the egghead parents may generate some interest on home vid.

The two play Catherine and Ben, who each hail from families of scientists and are curious to see if biology guarantees that trend will continue. With a grant from oddball philanthropist Randall Gertz (Michael Smiley), they want to raise three children — one biologically theirs, with two siblings of the same age adopted from troubled homes — to have talents and careers their genes would not suggest. Nature vs. nurture, settled for good. But as we settle in with the family 12 years later, things look inconclusive.

Before we get there, Hoss-Desmarais and screenwriter Marc Tulin (who previously collaborated on Whitewash, a mixed-bag vehicle for Thomas Haden Church) offer a big chunk of voiceover-heavy storytelling about the parents' brainiac forebears and the ways they've pursued the experiment, attempting to turn the three children into an accomplished artist, a genius and a noble pacifist. The shadow of The Royal Tenenbaums looms large here, and while the art department doesn't attempt any Wes Anderson moves, a soundtrack of lukewarm circa-'70s folk-pop tries and fails.

The experiment is flopping as the kids enter adolescence, causing Catherine to pull her hair out while Ben assures her any behavioral quirks are normal. Mr. Gertz disagrees: After testing the youths on one of his visits to the family's remote house, where they're being homeschooled by their parents and a Russian assistant (Andreas Apergis), he complains, "I'm not seeing superstars...they're pretty average." He reminds them of the terms of their grant, which require the pair to repay all the money (around $1.4 million by now) if their experiment "fails."

Here's where viewers with more than an "I've seen Frankenstein" interest in science may balk. In what numbskull corner of science do researchers agree to terms such as these? (And that's not to mention the dubious principles of knowledge-seekers who'd embark on a years-long psychology experiment while insisting on a predetermined outcome.)

If the basic premise never rings true, the characters involved do little to earn their keep onscreen. The kids (played by Jordan Poole, Anton Gillis-Adelman and Megan O'Kelly) display momentary quirks but don't get enough of Tulin's attention to shine with fully drawn personalities; marital tensions between Catherine and Ben are a bore. Some viewers will enjoy filling in the blanks when it comes to that Russian research assistant, a sexually frustrated man who has given too much of his life to this project.

Things end in a debacle. An intriguing but problematic plot twist sends family members, disgraced, in separate directions, and with scientific glory a moot point, it only remains for love to win the day. For once, the children are ahead of the curve — and if Birthmarked can't send us home satisfied, it at least leaves us with good vibes.

Production companies: Item 7, Parallel Films
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Toni Collette, Matthew Goode, Jordan Poole, Anton Gillis-Adelman, Megan O'Kelly, Andreas Apergis, Michael Smiley, Fionnula Flanagan
Director: Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais
Screenwriter: Marc Tulin
Producer: Pierre Even
Executive producers: Berry Meyerowitz, Alan Moloney, Jeff Sackman
Director of photography: Josee Deshaies
Production designer: Emmanuel Frechette
Costume designer: Judy Jonker
Editor: Arthur Tarnowski
Composer: Stephen Rennicks
Casting director: Thyrza Ging

88 minutes

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