There’s a real home birth depicted in “Alia’s Birth,” but most everything else about Egyptian American writer-director Sam Abbas’ film is excessively mannered and oblique. An indie that, lacking an actual narrative or characters, asks viewers to parse meaning from subtle formal and storytelling clues, this off-the-beaten-path effort — nominally about a lesbian couple whose relationship becomes strained over the course of a night — frustrates more than it intrigues, and won’t have much appeal outside the furthest corners of the art-house world when it debuts in theaters and on VOD on Aug. 27.
The finale of “Alia’s Birth” is the aforementioned childbirth, which takes place in an inflatable pool situated in the living room of a New York City apartment. The couple about to bring an infant into the world aren’t identified, nor are the two doulas tending to the expectant mother, who suffers through some labor pains and then makes the final push and bears a baby son, whose immediate silence requires some quick professional intervention. With no musical accompaniment or camera movement, Abbas presents a prolonged snapshot of this everyday miracle, and the looks of exhaustion, relief and joy that wash over his subjects’ faces during this process are compelling enough to overshadow the fact that, in terms of the film as a whole, the scene exists in a vacuum.
There’s no overt clue as to why “Alia’s Birth” has shown us this highly personal event, given that its preceding action focuses on two unnamed lovers — played by Poorna Jagannathan and Nikohl Boosheri — whose bond fractures once Jagannathan’s protagonist opts not to join her girlfriend at an evening dance-club performance by DJ Nicole Moudaber. Or at least, it seems that’s the case, since Abbas only vaguely hints at the particulars of his scenario. Details about this duo come in snippets: Jagannathan reorders Prozac on her Walgreens phone app; Boosheri visits a store to buy a sexual device; both attend a pottery class. After Jagannathan declines to go to the show, they playfully sit across from each other in a prison-like meeting booth, followed by images of figures spied behind opaque barriers, thus suggesting their mounting rift.
Via the sight of Jagannathan standing alone on a dark, snowy airport tarmac, and Boosheri dancing joyously at the concert alongside a young man whom she’ll later sleep with, “Alia’s Birth” suggests underlying concerns about isolation and togetherness, estrangement and engagement. Nonetheless, those notions are hazy at best, and untethered to anything approaching a plot or substantially developed characterizations. Abbas shoots everything in static (and often forward-facing) fashion, and he and cinematographer Soledad Rodríguezoccasionally strike upon a lovely composition, such as Jagannathan’s forlorn face reflected in glass on a subway train. Trying to imbue those moments with greater import, however, soon proves a wearisome endeavor, especially considering that, aside from a few melancholic soundtrack arrangements, there’s little way to decipher their overarching intention.
At its mid-point, the film temporarily switches gears to deliver a narrated story about youthful menstrual ordeals that’s marked by jokey color-coded close-ups of mouths and objects. Like so much of the proceedings, the sequence is too random, fleeting and precious to make any real impact. The result is that “Alia’s Birth” feels like a collection of loosely related shorts uncomfortably stitched together into a feature, an impression underscored by the movie’s last 11 post-credits minutes, which are spent on a wannabe-cheeky title card that reads “The Following Is Part of the Film.”
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