My good friend came over the other day and we watched BirdBox together (pausing all the way through to make sure our kids weren’t watching, that they were playing nicely, for our own popcorn and arare refills and whatever else we needed to do to sneak in a grown-up movie with 5 kids in the house, ha!)
BirdBox has been getting all the hype currently available on social media. Netflix says 45 million of us have streamed it, and you know, that’s a lot of people (plus, some Kardashian loved it so that means another billion folk are likely waiting to watch as I type).
BirdBox is set in Northern California.
On a personal note, I was going in circles trying to figure out where they were exactly – it had references to Sacramento, Stockton, Sausalito and Santa Rosa. I looked it up though, and it was shot all over Northern California. I enjoyed how familiar the setting felt.
The story is based on novel, BirdBox, by Josh Malerman. It’s set right about now. In it, some presence comes to earth and causes most people who look at it to immediately want to commit suicide. Like, immediately: they see it, they kill themselves (no waiting around and tension built around that one; it’s totally direct).
It’s never clear what the presence is exactly – demons? Aliens? Who knows? It’s left pretty vague, and we never see it, but it does lean a little more on it being some kind of demonic entity of judgement.
Now, not everyone who sees it immediately commits suicide, nope; mentally ill people see it and then become it’s biggest devotees. They become fanatically obsessed with it and arguably “normal” people’s worst enemies as they then try to force “normal” people to look a it (“see how beautiful it is!”) and then of course, the “normal people” kill themselves after they are forced to see it.
In the movie, Malorie (played by Sandra Bullock) is a heavily pregnant woman who feels isolated and disconnected from other human beings. She winds up raising two kids – hers and the baby of another woman – with Tom (played by Trevante Rhodes from Moonlight). The story unfolds through time segment splicing – they go back and forth from the present on the river, to the past, which is when it all happened.
Everyone who Malorie started off with dies. Every one of them.
They all die.
Then she’s raising the two kids with Tom for 5 years, employing skills that blind parents have used forever.
They have a garden, they seem pretty self sufficient, but it’s apparently not enough and the houses around them that they raid for supplies have gradually dried out. (I guess all the canned stuff has reached their final expiration dates). Tom starts talking on the walkie talkie with some guy “down river” named Rick who invites them to float on down and join his spiffy community where everyone is alive.
Alarms go off for Malorie over the conversation, as Rick asked details that could potentially lead the mentally ill fanatic killer believers to them, or be a lure to the suicide-inducing presence.
But then Tom dies.
Before Tom died, however, he made Malorie promise him that in the event of his demise, she’d go down the river and look for Rick and his community. She duly sets off with the kids after Tom dies, and that leads to the present moment of her on the river. We then experience the final chapter with her as she rows the boat (with her blindfold on) down the river and reaches Rick’s place, which is in a school for the blind.
Most of the inhabitants there are blind.
Deeper Meanings in BirdBox
Malorie has a difficult time connecting with other people. That’s clear from the beginning, and it only grows deeper as the threat of the presence continues.
She only calls her son, “boy” and the girl who she is also raising, “girl.” She refuses to give them names or call herself their mother.
The entire movie is not just about the presence and all the awfulness in that world; it’s about her personal journey to human connection. She grieves Tom’s loss, she pivots to learn to embrace the hope that was his. She names her children and she calls herself their mother.
I kept trying to understand the significance of the presence and the blindfolds, but it felt like too much of a stretch to say it’s a metaphor for something else. I ended up just taking it for its face value: it’s a presence that makes people want to not be alive anymore.
A Disability Perspective on BirdBox
This is the ultimate horror movie for a deaf person.
I mean, OH MY GOD: being blindfolded?!! Having to rely on our hearing?!! We would be so screwed!
I know this was the reason why I initially resisted watching it; I honestly can’t imagine anything scarier that that. A Quiet Place was great; us deaf would totally rock that world. I loved the beautiful cinematography in that movie, and the main scary piece there was how much we might forget and get loud about (- read my full review on the Netflix blog, linked here),
We would be completely vulnerable in the BirdBox world, and just thinking about the stress of trying to hear makes me feel anxiety.
Added to that, I took some umbrage over the continued perpetuation of the stigma of mental illness.
I mean, why do the people who are mentally ill see the presence and fall in love? Then, why do they have to be the ones going around like zombies, trying to make all the “normal” people “see the beauty” too? Give me a freaking break!
I have mental illnesses – yes, I have Complex Post Traumatic Disorder (C-PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). I’m pretty weary of how alike a tired trope this is becoming, this whole, hey! let’s lay the bad stuff on the people who are mentally ill! Again! Because it’s not enough to just blame them for every. freaking. thing. that goes wrong in everyday society!
If anything, I feel like those of us who do have a mental illness would be the ultimate warriors in a battle against some suicide-inducing presence. We are the ones who are so familiar with the dips and spins that can come from trauma, intense pressure and emotions. We have skills!
So, all of that was annoying to me.
What I’d love is to see a movie that plays on the aptitude, proficiency, artistry, intelligence and moxie that most of us with mental illnesses develop by dint of having to navigate this world using a brain that marches to the tune of our own drummer.
A Quiet Place showcases the deaf advantage. BirdBox showcases the blind advantage. Let’s have something that showcases the mentally ill advantage, hmm, shall we?
I thought the cast was outstanding.
John Malkovich, Trevante Rhodes, and wow, Sandra Bullock at her finest! The acting was phenomenal.
I thought the story was great too: vague enough to really make it what you wanted, large gaps in understanding (like that canopy at the school for the blind…how did that keep the presence out?!) but enough that’s solid to make you take it kind of seriously.
No two ways around it though: this was a horror story for me. This movie has had me wake up for two nights in a row and lie awake, scared. I mean, I keep thinking about having to navigate the world while blindfolded, or having to rely on hearing and I break out in a cold sweat.
I am glad I watched it, but I prefer dystopian worlds where cochlear-implant wearing folk save the day and where knowing ASL saves your life.