After hearing a basic plot description, there will be no surprises in Anne Zohra Berrached’s ultra-earnest “24 Weeks,” a very standard-issue drama about a woman flip-flopping on whether to have a late-term abortion when her fetus is diagnosed with Down syndrome and heart problems. It’s all here: the moral dilemma, the argument with the b.f., the sober conversations with doctors, even an alone-in-church scene. What’s missing is anything that gets under the skin, or a discussion that goes deeper than daytime talk shows. Apart from German showcases, international play will be tiny.
Berrached (“Two Mothers,” a 2013 issue film about a lesbian couple) tries exceptionally hard to stay neutral on the abortion topic. While making every effort to appear pro-choice, the director also pushes the idea that a woman needs to know exactly what it means to end a pregnancy once the fetus is viable; while that’s unquestionably the case, the insistence on this viscerally emotional point overwhelms such vital considerations as the impact on the family unit should a severely disabled baby be brought into the world.
Standup comedian Astrid Lorenz (Julia Jentsch) is glowing: She’s got a great career (though perhaps a genuine comedian should have taken charge of writing her extremely wan material), a hip house with b.f.-manager Markus (Bjarne Maedel), a sweet daughter named Nele (Emilia Pieske), and a child in her belly. Then the doc tells her the fetus has a 98% chance of having Down syndrome.
Understandably, the information throws Astrid for a loop. Increasing the pressure is the fact that she’s a public figure, which means her pregnancy is already part of the media chatter. She and Markus jointly agree to continue the pregnancy, and ask her mother, Beate (Johanna Gastdorf), to move in since the child will require extra care and Nele mustn’t be neglected. Making the decision easier is the fact that the script refuses to give Beate a free-standing life, so her daughter’s extraordinary selfishness (never couched in such terms) creates only a moment’s hesitation.
When the couple learn that the fetus has two holes in his heart, the question of whether to abort becomes more acute. And since late-term abortions are allowed in Germany when disabilities are involved, it would be possible for Astrid to end the pregnancy at six months. Markus (a tiresomely predictable character) is convinced that they’ve already made up their minds, but Astrid now has doubts, leading to a stock therapy session and that church scene. There’s even a doctor with the same surname as helmer Berrached, though it’s unclear what audiences are supposed to make of this coincidence.
About the only out-of-the-ordinary plot element is the pressure Astrid faces as a celebrity: Whichever way she goes, the spotlight will be on her decision, making it no longer a private matter. Otherwise, the film is full of predictably empathic scenes, including an overload of amniotic moments (water is a key element, whether in a pool, a shower, a sink or the womb). Most of all, the script cries out for a real discussion between Astrid and Markus about the impact a disabled child would have on their lives as individuals, as a couple and as a family.
Visuals are designed to get in the characters’ faces, examining them just as they examine their consciences. Apparently the endoscopic fetal images — Berrached makes certain that audiences recognize hands, legs and lips, all traits that reinforce the idea of this being a living human baby — are the first time HD quality womb-views have been shown in a movie. In a bid for a questionably necessary authenticity, the film uses real doctors and medical providers in the cast.