The Horror-Filled Truth About Fertility Treatments and 'False Positives'
The new Hulu film is a rare Hollywood production that depicts women's struggles to conceive in their own words.
Fertility treatments, as millions of women are well aware, can be a nightmare. The agonizing, sterile procedures; the loss of control over one's own body; the never-ending blood tests and experiments; and the strange medications that take over your refrigerator shelves and your life.
If this terror has been experienced by so many women in real life, do we really need an exaggerated Hollywood version of our stories? After watching Hulu's new film "False Positive" and other recent screen depictions, I'd say it depends on who's watching.
As many others have stated, I did not have the "Knocked Up" version of pregnancy in real life. It took much more than one night of inebriated sex with Seth Rogen to accomplish this. Rather than being romantic, my journey to parenthood was heartbreaking, tedious, and dominated by scenes of exhausted women crammed into a fertility clinic waiting room. While that may not sound cinematic, the inner turmoil can feel as dramatic and dire as any war story. And audiences, after all, adore a good war story, correct? Therefore, why not ours?
While watching "False Positive" and Netflix's "Master of Nonestunning "'s in vitro fertilization episode, I saw my story, and the stories of so many others, elevated to the status of the main event, rather than a subplot or a character's backstory. Surrogacy, adoption, miscarriage, and in vitro fertilization have all been depicted on television previously, ranging from "Friends" and "Sex and the City" to "Fuller House" and Princess Carolyn's fertility struggles on "BoJack Horseman." However, even when those shows handled the subject with tact and candor, the stories were still treated as side plots.
I felt for Charlotte on "Sex and the City," but the day-to-day ugliness of infertility was glossed over. To be fair, the show did have other storylines. Charlotte did not need to worry about the exorbitant cost of I.V.F. medications or the adoption process.
I had never seen the raw truth about infertility onscreen until Tamara Jenkins's 2018 film "Private Life," which was entirely focused on the "by any means necessary" fertility quest of a New York couple in their forties, played by Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti. They attempted (and failed) to maintain a calm demeanor while waiting in the fertility clinic waiting room. He administered hormone shots to her. They fought and reconciled. The scenes unfolded in the same manner as they do in real life.
There was no cutting away to see what Samantha, Carrie, or Miranda were doing in an attempt to stay light. The story in "Private Life" felt familiar — raw, sad, humorous, and, yes, dramatic.
Fertility treatments and pregnancy can be frightening, and "False Positive" takes this fact and runs with it, propelling this narrative into territory akin to "American Psycho." It begins with a shot of a woman dressed in a crisp white button-down, covered in blood and trudging down the street in an ominous manner. “False Positive,” directed by John Lee and co-written by Lee and the film's star, Ilana Glazer, veers away from the quietly funny, everyday moments of “Private Life.” However, the filmmakers are not exploiting a traumatic experience for the sake of scaring the audience. They're taking a painful experience, one that is so visceral for so many women, and making us laugh while we cringe.
Glazer plays Lucy, a "marketing genius" married to a Peloton-obsessed surgeon named Adrian, with her signature wild curls ironed straight (Justin Theroux). Lucy says things like, "Am I going to be one of those women who has it all?" without a trace of irony. My career, my children, my elderly grandfather by my side?"
In other words, she is the type of woman Glazer's "Broad City" character would slap into shape if they met on a Brooklyn street.
However, when we meet Lucy, her seemingly perfect, upwardly mobile Manhattan life has been shattered by a two-year fertility struggle. “This is the one thing I'm supposed to be able to do as a woman, and I'm unable to do it,” she confides in Adrian following yet another negative pregnancy test. This is a sentiment that will strike a chord with many women who have encountered far too many negative results from their own tests.
In that regard, I was right alongside Lucy from the start. I understood precisely how she felt and what she was experiencing — her loneliness, shame, and fear. I wasn't sure why she was covered in blood in the opening scene, but I assumed she had a legitimate reason. Even the most Zen woman can become a complete mess as a result of infertility.
Adrian persuades Lucy to visit "one of the world's top five fertility specialists," the smarmy Dr. Hindle (Pierce Brosnan), who concludes her initial pelvic exam by saying, "Your architecture is fantastic." That is not exactly what you want the doctor in whom you have placed all your hopes and dreams to say. My fertility physician was quite clinical, but fortunately for me, he never mentioned my "architecture."
Hindle's experimental, fictional technique is described as a cross between intrauterine insemination and I.V.F., and while Lucy's story is a wildly exaggerated version of what many women experience, there are moments that will likely feel all too real for some. Certain scenes may be upsetting to those who have lived their own version of Lucy's more painful experiences.
That is not to say it is not razor-sharp, darkly amusing, and, at times, gloriously creepy. The words "you're glowing" have never felt as hostile toward a pregnant woman as they do in this film.
While I was rooting for Lucy, I felt completely connected to Naomi Ackie's Alicia in "Master of None." How Ackie captured the loneliness, ache, joy, defeat, and unwavering hope of a woman battling infertility so perfectly is beyond me. However, I suppose that is the beauty of a raw, give-this-woman-every-award-she-deserves performance.
Alicia, attempting to persuade her wife Denise (Lena Waithe) that the time has come to try for a baby, states: "I'm 34 years old. My ovaries are becoming stale.” It's another line that felt as if it were plucked directly from my own life and the lives of a number of my friends. Alicia, like me, must have been reading the same articles and Googling the same phrase combinations — “when do your ovaries stop working,” perhaps, or “geriatric pregnancy.”
Following an initial disappointment, Alicia visits a fertility clinic alone this time. There, the doctor shows her some charts and graphs and reminds her that her ovaries are on the “declining” side of those charts and graphs. Alicia observes women sobbing in the waiting room. She overhears them screaming at the receptionist about the treatment's costs and hidden fees — a moment that had me nodding in agreement. I've misplaced it several times in the clinic's billing department. Hormone shots and financial strain are an explosive mix.
Alicia also listens as her own doctor explains, in veiled terms, that her insurance will not cover the full cost of I.V.F. for a queer woman who cannot demonstrate infertility. When the doctor inquires about her well-being, Alicia responds, "I'm just realizing I may be unable to afford my own child."
Audiences took to Twitter to share how much they sobbed during the episode. They lauded the show's realistic, candid portrayal of infertility, tweeting that Alicia's story was similar to their own. Her emotions were identical to theirs. There is a scene in which Alicia must dig deep to summon the courage to administer her first hormone injection. It captivated me, as if she were Sean Astin in "Rudy," finally sprinting onto the Notre Dame football field to play for the Fighting Irish.
There were no cheering crowds or sweeping action shots for Alicia. Nobody lifted her onto his shoulders as the music swelled in a triumphant moment. She was standing in a cramped kitchen, calling her mother for moral support and administering an injection to herself. That moment may appear straightforward to some viewers. We, on the other hand, cheered.