Pregnancy and motherhood aren’t always positive. And when you live in a system that removes your agency and gaslights your concerns like Black and brown women in the United States do, becoming a mother can be terrifying. Kindred, a film from IFC Midnight and writer-director Joe Marcantonio captures that anxiety and it’s hard to detach my identity from my viewing of it.
In Kindred, Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance) is rocked by an unplanned pregnancy. When she visits her boyfriend Ben’s family and informs them of the news, the pressure to be married manifests and you see Charlotte’s identity fade away. In the eyes of his family, she is just a mother to their son’s child. She isn’t her own person. This happens quickly within the first act when his mother reveals her dislike for Charlotte. That said, the film gets increasingly terrifying when Charlotte’s boyfriend dies suddenly in an accident while on their visit.
When Charlotte collapses upon hearing the tragic news, she wakes up in Ben’s (Edward Holcroft) family home, a crumbling old manor house in the middle of nowhere. With Ben gone, she’s left with his overbearing mother, Margaret (Fiona Shaw), and his controlling stepbrother, Thomas (Jack Lowden). From that point on, the family seems to become increasingly obsessed with Charlotte’s every move. This causes Charlotte’s suspicions to grow and her panic to build. With a history of postpartum and perinatal psychosis in her family, Charlotte’s concerns are ignored. But one thing is clear, this family has the desire to control her and her unborn baby — and Charlotte is on her own to figure out how far they will go and how she can take her power back.
Kindred works as a film on many levels. The story of a woman becoming second to her unborn child, controlled because of what is in her womb, and ignored when she pushes to maintain her agency in her healthcare would be recognizable for many women. But, the fact that Charlotte is portrayed by a Black actress and the family is white makes the narrative all the more terrifying. But also, makes it mirror reality. The film may be British, but its themes speak volumes across the pond too.
Black women in the United States have the highest maternal mortality rate among mothers-to-be. Additionally, in the healthcare system more generally, Black women are more likely to die because of doctors refusing to acknowledge their pain. This leads to longer ER wait times and misdiagnosis. These realities shape how I view Kindred. Additionally, the long history of the United States forcibly sterilizing women of color, most recently Latinas in ICE detention centers, causes this film to take on a terrifying reality that I’m unsure Marcantonio was aware of. But that isn’t a bad thing.
As Charlotte’s life becomes increasingly endangered and controlled, the tension of the film ramps up. A miss on Marcantonio’s part was to cause viewers to doubt Charlotte’s sanity. In other gaslighting films this year, like The Invisible Man, it’s clear that the women at the center of the narrative are being manipulated, controlled, and ignored by the people around them. While causing doubt in your protagonist can heighten the tension of the story, it’s a misstep for Kindred given its theme of losing personhood to motherhood.
That said, the performances in Kindred more than make up for any qualms I have with the execution of the story. As Charlotte, Lawrance is phenomenal. She is empathetic, fearful, vulnerable, and in the third act when she attempts to take back control, she’s powerful. In fact, Charlotte’s fear of motherhood, which morphs into fear of the family controlling her, is an emotion that I see myself in. I don’t want kids, and while I could get into some long drawn out “the world is bad” argument, I’ll instead be more direct: I do not want my life to be defined by being someone’s mother. What Charlotte’s fear and role in this story represents for a woman like me who is choosing to live childfree is a reinforcement of what we see happen in anti-choice debates and in familial discussions of the future: woman second, child first. I see myself in Charlotte and in her fear.
Additionally, Shaw delivers a chilling performance. The mother-in-law from Hell, Shaw as Margaret manages to showcase the motherly concern that warps into controlling oppression. This makes the viewer hold their breath when she enters the scene. Shaw is terrifying. Her “well-meaning” mannerisms and devotion to her family is the toxic maternal power that shakes me to my core.
Overall, Kindred is a film that isn’t easy to watch. And while I don’t agree with every choice it makes, this is a film that builds its terror by tapping into reality, which is why it works. Once again, motherhood proves a vital foundation for building horror.
Kindred is available on VoD and select theaters November 6, 2020.
Kindred is a film that isn’t easy to watch. And while I don’t agree with every choice it makes, this is a film that builds its terror by tapping into reality, which is why it works. Once again, motherhood proves a vital foundation for building horror.