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D: Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais / 90m

Cast: Toni Collette, Matthew Goode, Andreas Apergis, Jordan Poole, Megan O’Kelly, Anton Gillis-Adelman, Michael Smiley, Fionnula Flanagan, Suzanne Clément

Ben (Goode) and Catherine (Collette) are two scientists who are interested in examining the whole Nature vs Nurture debate through an idea for an experiment they have. Newly married and with a baby on the way, their idea is to raise their own child and two adopted babies against their genetic predispositions. They’re lucky enough to find a backer for their experiment, Randolph Gertz (Smiley), and they raise the children in a remote cabin in the woods, home-schooling them as well and focusing their minds on becoming an artist (their own son, Luke), an intellectual (their adopted daughter, Maya), and a pacifist (their adopted son, Maurice). They’re aided by an ex-Olympic level Russian marksman called Samsonov (Apergis) who defected to the West in the Seventies. With twelve years of a thirteen year experiment having passed, Gertz’s assessment that the children aren’t extraordinary examples of Nurture over Nature prompts Ben and Catherine to try harder to get the results they need, but their efforts come at a cost to their marriage, their professional relationship, and the needs of the children…

Somewhere in the midst of Birthmarked there’s the germ of a good idea struggling to be noticed. Like the children that are the subject of Ben and Catherine’s slightly less than ethical experiment, the movie wants to be something it’s not allowed to be: sprightly, perceptive, and engaging. It is funny in places, though in a law of averages kind of fashion that only highlights how much of Marc Tulin’s screenplay doesn’t gel cohesively, and it has an appealing cast who are at least trying their best to put over the material, but thanks to some poor decisions along the way, the movie coasts on too many occasions, and never hits a consistent stride. A great deal of what hampers the movie from being more successful is its inability to focus on one storyline over the rest, with Ben and Catherine’s marriage drawing more and more attention during the latter half, while each individual child receives occasional turns in the spotlight, but not in such a way that we get to know them. Then there’s Gertz, the obvious bad guy of the piece, and his equally obvious machinations (revealed late on but easily guessed at long before). Add in Samsonov’s presence – friend or foe? – and you have too many characters who lack substance, and who only occasionally drive the movie forward.

All this has the misfortune of making the movie uneven and feeling like the cinematic equivalent of a patchwork quilt that has several panels missing. Hoss-Desmarais, making only his second feature, has no answers for any of this, and though some scenes work better than others, often this is due to the cast’s efforts instead of his. Goode plays Ben as a rather blinkered, the-experiment-is-all character who behaves badly for no other reason than that the script needs him to, while Collette goes from entirely reasonable to inexplicably depressed over the course of a couple of scenes in order to provide the last third with some unneeded secondary drama. The young cast are often the best thing about the movie, and that’s largely due to their playing their roles like ordinary children (which they are, despite the intention of the experiment), and there’s some beautifully austere winter photography by Josée Deshaies that at least provides the action with a backdrop that reflects the muted dramatics. In the same way that Ben and Catherine’s experiment lacks coherence in the way they deal with any problems that arise, the movie also struggles to offer a consistency of tone or content. Maybe the movie, like the experiment it’s exploring, needed a longer nurturing period before committing itself to audiences.

Rating: 5/10 – sporadically amusing, with a cast that play their roles as capably as possible, Birthmarked is moderately appealing for the most part, but is mainly frustrating thanks to the opportunities it wastes; too wayward then to work effectively, it’s a movie that should be watched under proviso, or maybe as an experiment in itself.

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