In vitro fertilization and related procedures are emotive subjects continually being re-shaped by advances at the scalpel-sharp edge of science; as such, the topic could provide fertile ground for polemic delivered from every angle. Writer-director Maria Arlamovsky avoids this approach in “Future Baby” by giving airtime to a wide range of expert sources, who unfold the issues in layman’s terms, generally as dispassionately as possible, making this a decent primer for anybody thinking of dipping a cautious toe in the world of medically-assisted baby-making.
The film’s classical approach to the documentary form — talking head vignettes are interspersed with footage of subjects at work — would make it accessible to a broad TV audience, though its stoic avoidance of sensationalism may count against it in a world of networks fixated on generating hashtag chatter.
Coming on like an exemplary term paper from a student who is consistently top of his class, Arlamovsky’s “Future Baby” is meticulous in its research and range of contributors presented. Interviewees include doctors, embryologists, CEOs, journalists, would-be parents, egg donors, academics, a young woman born via IVF, a bioethicist, a biotechnologist and a sociologist. It’s a thorough selection. The focus is on expertise rather than emotion, with the majority of contributors delivering professional opinions in a diplomatic register.
There are moments which despite their low-key delivery, retain the power to shock. A visit to the My Donor Cycle Agency, which is outfitted in a way more reminiscent of a luxury spa than a medical center, offers a glimpse into a version of consumer choice that would feel right at home in “Brave New World.” An anonymous would-be father on a Skype call with an IVF center is walked through pictures of photogenic egg donors in a manner evoking a high-end dating service. One prospective donor, an attractive young Berkeley graduate hoping to pay off her student loan, is rejected by the caller for being perhaps “a little heavy.” The center employee demurs flimsily, suggesting that because so many of their donors are model-thin, he might be having trouble assessing her by normal standards.
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Of the experts on offer, bioethicist Carmel Shalev stands out as she outlines a concise but effective summary of historical and contemporary issues, beginning by drawing our attention to the 1970s position, where medical intervention in reproduction involved the freedom to choose not to become pregnant, not to continue with a pregnancy and not to unduly risk the life of mother or child via unsafe childbirth. She sets this in stark contrast to the current interpretation of “the right to parenthood” as less the right to attempt parenthood than an unalienable, almost consumerist right to a child, tracing a spectrum from wish to desire to need to entitlement, and asking audiences to consider where their own emotions in regard to parenthood sit on this spectrum.
Where the doc sometimes falls short given the subject matter is in its emotional engagement. The filmmakers have done their homework, and have clearly been resolute in their attempt to be fully inclusive of a broad range of perspectives, but the result is that the film reads as somewhat encyclopedic in tone. We taste snippets of each experience and rarely revisit a character once their minute or two in the spotlight is done, with the result that even the most engaging of the human interest stories feels abbreviated. An exception to the generally clinical approach is a surrogate’s caesarean delivery filmed from above, a sort of god’s-eye view of a relatively new form of creation.
Broadcasters with an interest in efficiently made and ethically sound feature-length docs on hot-button topics could consider acquisition; it’s not a picture likely or perhaps even intended to spark a theatrical rights bidding war, but makes for a solid intro to the contemporary world of IVF.