As millions of women know, fertility treatments can be a nightmare. The painful, sterile procedures, the loss of control over your own body, the never-ending blood tests and experiments and strange medications that take over your refrigerator shelves and your life.
If so many women have endured this terror in real life, do we really need an exaggerated Hollywood version of our experiences? After seeing the new Hulu movie “False Positive” and other recent screen depictions, I would say, it depends who’s watching.
Like so many others, I did not experience the “Knocked Up” version of pregnancy in real life. It took a lot more than one night of drunk sex with Seth Rogen to do the job. Instead of being rom-com cute, my story of becoming a parent was heartbreaking, tedious and dominated by scenes of exhausted women packed into the fertility-clinic waiting room. That might not sound cinematic, but when you’re going through it, the inner turmoil can feel as dramatic and dire as any war story. And audiences love a good war story, right? So why not ours?
Watching “False Positive” and the stunning in vitro fertilization episode of Netflix’s “Master of None,” I saw my story, the story of so many others, turned into the main event instead of a subplot or a character’s back story. Surrogacy and adoption and miscarriage and in vitro fertilization have been portrayed onscreen before, from “Friends” and “Sex and the City” to “Fuller House” and Princess Carolyn’s fertility struggles on “BoJack Horseman.” But even if those shows handled the topic with sensitivity and honesty, the stories were still treated as secondary plots.
I felt for Charlotte as she tried to get pregnant on “Sex and the City,” but the day-to-day ugliness that infertility can bring was glossed over. To be fair, the show had other stories to tell. Still, Charlotte didn’t need to stress about the mind-boggling price of I.V.F. medications or the cost of adoption.
I hadn’t seen the raw truth about infertility onscreen until I watched Tamara Jenkins’s “Private Life” (2018), which focused entirely on the “by any means necessary” fertility quest of a New York couple in their 40s, played by Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti. They tried (and failed) to appear calm in the fertility clinic waiting room. He gave her hormone shots. They fought and they made up. The scenes unfolded as in real life.
There was no cutting away to see what Samantha or Carrie or Miranda were up to in an effort to avoid becoming too heavy. In “Private Life,” the story felt familiar — raw, sad, funny and, yes, dramatic.
Fertility treatments and pregnancy can be terrifying, and “False Positive” takes that fact and runs with it, pushing this narrative into “American Psycho” territory. It opens with a shot of a woman in a crisp white button-down, covered in blood, trudging ominously down the street. Directed by John Lee and co-written by Lee and the film’s star, Ilana Glazer, “False Positive” opts for over-the-top horror and social satire instead of the quietly funny, everyday moments of “Private Life.” But the filmmakers aren’t exploiting a painful experience for the sake of some scares. They’re taking that painful experience, one that is so visceral for so many women, and allowing us to laugh, even as we cringe.
Glazer, with her signature wild curls ironed straight, plays Lucy, a “marketing genius” married to a Peloton-loving surgeon named Adrian (Justin Theroux). Without an ounce of irony, Lucy says things like: “Am I going to be one of those women who has it all? My career, my kids, my old man by my side?”
In other words, she’s the kind of woman Glazer’s “Broad City” character might literally slap into shape if they ran into each other on a Brooklyn street.
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But Lucy’s seemingly perfect, upwardly mobile Manhattan life has been undercut when we meet her by a two-year fertility struggle. “As a woman, this is the one thing I’m supposed to be able to do, and I can’t do it,” she tells Adrian after yet another negative pregnancy test. It’s a sentiment that will resonate with many women who have encountered one too many negative tests of their own.
In that sense, I was with Lucy from the start. I knew exactly how she felt and what she was going through — her loneliness and shame and fear. I wasn’t sure why she was covered in blood in the opening scene, but I figured she probably had a good reason. Infertility can turn even the most Zen woman into a complete mess.
Adrian finally convinces Lucy to see “one of the top five fertility specialists in the world,” the smarmy Dr. Hindle (Pierce Brosnan), who finishes up her first pelvic exam by saying, “Your architecture is great.” Not exactly what you want the doctor you’re putting all your hopes and dreams into to say. My fertility doctor was pretty clinical, but lucky for me, he never talked about my “architecture.”
Hindle’s experimental, fictional technique is described as a combination of intrauterine insemination and I.V.F., and even though Lucy’s story is a wildly exaggerated version of what many women go through, there are moments that will probably feel all too real for some. Some scenes might be triggering for people who have lived their own version of the more painful experiences in Lucy’s story.
That doesn’t mean it’s not sharp and darkly funny and, at times, gloriously creepy. The words “you’re glowing,” directed at a pregnant woman, have never felt as hostile as they do in this film.
I was rooting for Lucy, but I felt full-on cosmically bonded to Naomi Ackie’s Alicia in “Master of None.” How Ackie so perfectly embodied the loneliness and ache and joy and defeat and relentless hope of a woman who is struggling to have a baby is beyond me. But I guess that’s the beauty of a raw, give-this-woman-all-the-awards performance.
Alicia, trying to convince her wife, Denise (Lena Waithe), that it’s time to try and have a baby, says: “I’m 34 years old. My ovaries are starting to get stale.” It’s yet another line that felt ripped straight from my own life and the lives of many of my friends. Alicia must have been reading the same articles and Googling the same word combinations — “when do your ovaries stop working,” perhaps, or “geriatric pregnancy” — as I once did.
After an early disappointment, Alicia, all alone this time, heads to a fertility clinic, where the doctor shows her some charts and graphs and reminds her that her ovaries are on the “declining” part of those charts and graphs. In the waiting room, Alicia watches as women sob. She hears them scream at the receptionist about the costs and hidden fees of treatments — a moment that had me nodding in solidarity. I lost it in the clinic billing department myself more than once. Hormone shots and financial stress are a volatile combination.
Alicia also listens as her own doctor explains, in veiled language, that her insurance won’t cover all of the costs of I.V.F. for a queer woman who can’t prove she is infertile. When the doctor asks her if she’s OK, Alicia says, “I’m just realizing I might not be able to afford my own child.”
The episode had audiences taking to Twitter to share how they sobbed through the episode. They praised the show’s realistic, honest treatment of infertility, tweeting that Alicia’s story was their story, or at least similar to their story. Her emotions were their emotions. There’s a scene that shows Alicia digging deep to find the courage to give herself that first hormone injection. It had me riveted, as if she were Sean Astin in “Rudy,” finally running onto the football field to play for Notre Dame.
For Alicia, there were no cheering crowds or sweeping action shots. No one hoisted her on his shoulders as music swelled in a moment of triumph. She was standing in a tiny kitchen, calling her mom for moral support and giving herself a shot. For some viewers, that moment might seem simple. For the rest of us, we cheered.