Adalynn (2023)

Adalynn begins with its title character (Sydney Carvill, perfectly personifying anxiety) talking, in voiceover, about the strong bond between a polar bear and her two cubs, and how damaging any severance of that bond would be, even as we see three ursine figurines getting wet in a shower. This sequence introduces not only the film’s core theme – the fragility of the maternal tie – but also a key mode of its presentation. For while it is often said that movies should show, not tell, James Byrd’s feature, scripted by his regular collaborator Jerrod D. Brito, is full of narration, weaving its story from what we see, what we hear, and from the artworks that Adalynn occasionally creates in her studio. These three media collectively offer an unfolding – perhaps ‘unravelling’ would be a more apt term – portrait of this new mother trying to cope with the hand that fate has dealt her; and the three faces of Adalynn that they reveal sometimes corroborate, sometimes contradict one another, to the point where the reliability of each and every one is called into question, as is our evolving impression of the protagonist. 

Still the opening credits that follow this prologue, all juddery, dislocated images (a photo of a happy couple, a child’s alphabet cubes rearranged to read SMILE then MILES then LIES, squiggly lines in a diary, a stethoscope, a baby’s milk bottle falling over, a tube of pills, a distorted sonogram) set to Vahid Jahandari’s jarring score, presage the fractured neurosis and paranoia to come. Adalynn may live with her perfect husband Dr Bill Bolland (Wade Baker) in what she describes as “the perfect house in the perfect neighbourhood in the perfect town”, and they may just have brought home their perfect baby daughter Elizabeth, but the dysfunctional cracks are already visible in this domestic utopia. Adalynn is exhausted and ambivalent towards the newborn Elizabeth, and has still not moved on from the death of a previous baby some years earlier – and her effort to gloss over this unresolved grief and guilt (for which she has – or perhaps has not – stopped taking her meds) expresses itself through obsessive-compulsive behaviours, depression and delusion. 

Adalynn is clearly not well, and it is only reluctantly, and at her insistence, that Bill agrees to leave her alone with Elizabeth for a week while he attends an out-of-state conference. We stay with her, barely ever leaving the confines of the house, or of her own addled interiority, as her increasingly warped perspective, and her propensity for nightmares and hallucinations, are all given free rein over a narrative whose unstable twists and turns become ever more unpredictable. Like Brandon Christensen’s Still/Born (2017), Kevin Pontuti’s The Yellow Wallpaper (2021) and Michelle Garza Cervera’s Huesera (2022), this is a post-partum psychogenic fugue that has the viewer constantly worried about the safety of a baby whose face is always kept just out of shot, while equally unsure whether the threat to its livelihood is external (the ‘stalker’ that Adalynn is convinced is trying to break in, or the child-snatching witch that she keeps seeing and hearing) or entirely internal. The very name of Adalynn’s first child, Miles, evokes both Henry James’ influential The Turn of The Screw (1898) – with its young brother of the same name – and the novella’s similar equivocation between the supernatural and the psychological. 

“What would people say if I told them what I saw and felt?”, Adalynn wonders aloud in voiceover, even as her film restricts itself precisely to her skewed point of view. “They’d say I was crazy. They’d call me a monster. Maybe they’d even try and take Elizabeth,” she concludes, carefully modulating our own responses to her portrayal. “But l’m not a monster, I’m a mother.” Part of what makes Adalynn so effective is the way that it toys with our sympathies, leaving us struggling at any moment to know whether to champion or fear a heroine who seems capable, at least in her head, of doing great harm to herself and others. Again, Adalynn herself puts this best: “It scares me sometimes how easily I can get lost in my own fantasy.” We know from very early on that what we are seeing is not quite the same as what we are getting, as we are taken along for a tension-filled ride by the central character’s frazzled subjectivity – but that still leaves the precise nature of the reality underlying her escapist fantasy elusive until the final reveal. Adalynn’s quest for perfection, long after its possibility had ended, brings to Byrd’s film a tragic hopelessness that is its true horror. For here, the trauma has already taken place, and the rest is just its agonising afterbirth.

strap: James Byrd’s post-partum tragi-horror shows a new mother’s flawed quest for perfection from the inside

© Anton Bitel