In the so-so comedy Birthmarked, married scientist parents (Toni Collette and Matthew Goode) raise their kids to be the exact opposite of what their genes suggest. Directed by Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais from a screenplay by Marc Tulin.
Birthmarked is surprisingly funny and charming for a film about two egghead parents who conduct experiments on their children. I like it in spite of itself; it’s oddly well-meaning, and while it never quite sells the premise enough to overcome slim commercial prospects, likable turns by Toni Collette and Matthew Goode might help it to attract a modest audience that’ll likely find it entertaining enough.
The two play Catherine and Ben, two scientists who devise an experiment to settle the age-old “nature vs. nurture” debate. With a grant from an eccentric patron, Randall Gertz (Michael Smiler), they want to raise three children – one their own, two adopted – in ways that run contrary to their heredity. Biological son Luke (Jordan Poole) is reared as an artist, adopted daughter Maya (Megan O’Kelly) is schooled as an intellectual after being born to a family thicker than McDonald’s milkshakes, and adopted son Maurice (Anton Gillis-Adelman), who hails from a family of violent nutters, is taught to be pacifistic. The oddball clan cower away in Ben’s rural cabin for a lifetime of carefully-tailored home-schooling, aided by a sexually-frustrated Russian research assistant, Samsonov (Andreas Apergis).
The basic setup is interesting and mildly amusing, but it never really rings true. Too far-fetched to be taken seriously, dramatic wrinkles, like Gertz insisting that the grant must be paid back in its entirety if the experiment fails, don’t really lend anything to Marc Tulin’s screenplay, which feels devoid of any real stakes and bogged down by predictability when things start to go wrong. The kids are written as miniature collections of quirks rather than fully-drawn personalities, and when Ben and Catherine’s relationship begins to fray, it’s mostly boring.
There are plenty of amusing moments though, it must be said, so the weak drama isn’t a death knell for Birthmarked, much as the parents’ misguided hypotheses aren’t the only revelations of their experiment. The mounting sentimentality as we approach the climax shouldn’t work in a story this daft, but for me it mostly did, and it’s helped along by direction that’s uneven as a whole but effective where it counts, and a soundtrack peppered with 70s folk-pop tunes.
Birthmarked doesn’t have much appeal beyond its fanciful packaging – Fionnula Flanagan provides expository voiceover narration that has a fairytale quality – but it has enough warmth and quirkiness to be enjoyable. Any point it has to make about parenting is a vague one, and it never manages to really find the emotion in familial love and bonding ultimately trumping all, but I found it to be charming, and unusual, and worth a look in spite of its many flaws. If nothing else, it made me thankful that my daughter’s seeming genetic predisposition to be a rampaging criminal maniac might not be set in stone after all.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.