You’d be forgiven for not being inclined to laugh at anything pregnancy-related at the moment. Kudos to “Doula” for trying, though, as director Cheryl Nichols’ lighthearted pregnancy comedy arrives at a time when the “laughter is the best medicine” theory is being stress-tested like never before for women across the country. To call its brand of comedy “niche” might be an understatement — for one thing, its central plot development hinges on knowing the difference between a midwife and a doula — but the film’s insights ultimately outnumber its laughs.
That wouldn’t appear to be the case early on, as the funniest scene is also the first. Eyes closed during a visualization exercise, Deb (Troian Bellisario) reluctantly informs her midwife Penka (Cheryl Baker) that it isn’t working. She can’t see a baby, just an orangish blob. There’s just one problem: Penka has died sometime in the last few minutes. This leads not only to a woo-woo funeral with flower crowns that almost seems destined to veer into “Midsommar” territory, but also to a conundrum: Deb and her boyfriend Silvio (Arron Shiver, who also wrote the script) need a new midwife. What they get instead is Sascha (Will Greenberg), a doula who happens to be Penka’s son.
If you’ve seen literally any movie about a couple welcoming an outsider into their life in such an intimate way, you’ll probably hear alarm bells the moment Sascha takes residence in the same backyard tent his mother was living in prior to her demise. (She insisted on not staying in the house itself, as does he.) It’s impossible for a variable like that not to alter their dynamic, which is already more fraught than it appears. Easygoing Deb wouldn’t mind a hospital birth, whereas Silvio is pushing her to do it at home. It’s he who decides to hire Sascha and he who regrets it when the doula influences Deb in ways he wasn’t anticipating. (“You know that whole pasteurized cheese thing? Myth.”)
We don’t often think of pregnancy movies as a genre, and yet that life hurdle has inspired many a movie. These run the gamut from comedy (“Knocked Up,” “Obvious Child”) to horror (“Rosemary’s Baby,” “mother!”), with some of the most memorable, disturbing entries focusing on abortion access and the lack thereof: “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” and “Happening,” to name just a few. The last of these, which won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival, has odd timing in common with “Doula.” Where Audrey Diwan’s film arrived in stateside theaters shortly after the draft of last week’s Supreme Court ruling was leaked, Nichols’ has been released less than a week after the decision itself.
So if you’re wondering whether “Doula” is funny or engaging enough to take your mind off all that, the answer is a firm maybe. The movie is at its best when focusing on Deb, an independent spirit who can’t help being surrounded by men who insist they know what’s best for her. Bellisario, best known for her breakthrough role on “Pretty Little Liars,” has wit and charm to spare. Manipulation comes in many forms, and it’s often most insidious at the hands of those who present themselves as allies and advocates. “Doula” is well attuned to that sad fact, and a tighter focus on it rather than the more comedic elements (most of which don’t land as intended) might have helped shape it into something sharper.
The only man involved in Deb’s pregnancy who seems trustworthy is her actual doctor (Chris Pine, who also produced; “Doula” is the first release from his new production company, Barry Linen Motion Pictures). He’s justifiably wary of both Silvio and Sascha. Not for nothing does Pine consistently place high in fans’ rankings of the Hollywood Chrises (see also: Hemsworth, Evans and Pratt) — it’s rare for a star of his level to be involved with such a small, intimate project, and there’s little doubt that “Doula” was a labor of love.
Even so, the film rarely being ha-ha funny makes it drag. It seems odd to say that a 105-minute movie is too long, and yet so little of consequence actually happens in that hour and 45 minutes that you can’t help wishing some of the fat had been trimmed in the editing room. “Doula” ultimately comes across less as an actual comedy and more as a slice of life that’s lighthearted but also low stakes. Besides thinking Deb would do well to extricate herself from nearly every relationship she’s in, it simply doesn’t inspire much in the way of strong feelings.