“It’s just a baby – how big are they even?” Jo (Noemie Merlant) innocently wonders aloud in “Baby Ruby,” surrounded by friends and employees at the shower she’s throwing for herself. While her husband Spencer (Kit Harrington) wonders if that’s slightly strange, she’d surely have it no other way when she insists of picture perfect scenes from her life to appear on her influencer blog Love Josephine, and as her assistant Caroline (Camila Canó-Flaviá) says in a toast at the gathering, “We’d all hate you if we didn’t love you so much,” seemingly living the ideal life and prepared for everything. Or just about in Bess Wohl’s monstrously entertaining dark comedy where the arrival of a newborn seems to herald the death of something inside of Jo, who struggles with feeling like a part of the world after Ruby’s made her way into it.
Wohl, a gifted playwright who specializes in writing gloriously messy characters, brings the best aspects of her work on stage – the sly exposition and the shrewd use of locations, in particular – while demonstrating she’s a formidable filmmaker even in her feature debut, venturing into the slightly surreal as Jo descends into minor case of madness. The birth of Ruby would seem to be an exciting event for the blog as Jo posts pics from the baby shower as a DIY tutorial that scores a number of instant likes, but the affirmation is fleeting and short-lived when it takes at least a month to post any actual baby pics when Jo and Spencer have trouble adjusting to the sleepless nights with the endlessly crying kid and whether it’s being tired or simply deep-seated fears rising to the surface, Jo starts having horrific visions involving her baby and others. (It doesn’t help her vivid imagination that Spencer is an artisanal butcher.)
However, even more disconcerting is what Jo knows to be reality warping right in front of her eyes when befriending Shelly (Meredith Hagner), a fellow mom whose friends reads Jo’s blog religiously, jealous of how put together she is yet now look far more the ideal than she does. Merlant, whose steely determination and conviction have rarely been utilized for comic effect, has a field day with her eyes flared for the many freak outs Jo endures and a sense of being gaslit sets in as Spencer and his doting mother Doris (Jayne Atkinson) don’t exactly share her concerns and her pediatrician (Reed Birney) is skeptical of her claims that the baby’s bitten her while breastfeeding when she shouldn’t even yet have teeth. While that’s left up to debate, Wohl’s screenplay definitely does, brilliantly tackling post-partum depression and the sense of shame that comes from trying to describe motherhood as anything but in the most glowing terms.
You can’t help but describe “Baby Ruby” in such ways, however, when Jo’s experience is so impressively conveyed, with cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramirez working all the angles of her Instagram-ready refurbished church home with wall to ceiling glass windows that leave her exposed and the evocative sound design where Ruby’s cries become a cacophony that rattle around the skull. So too do all the ideas that Wohl puts forth when there’s no safety net in sight for Jo as a new mother. Then again, it seems like there isn’t for the filmmaker, either, and she flourishes under the circumstances.
“Baby Ruby” will screen again at the Toronto Film Festival at the Scotiabank on September 10th at 9:10 pm, September 15th at 9:30 pm and September 17th at 12:30 pm.