“My Zoe,” which opened in South Florida theaters this past weekend, is a labor of love for its writer, director and star Julie Delpy—with as much an emphasis on the labor as the love.
In Delpy’s fifth feature as director, she plays Isabelle, a French national living and working as a geneticist in Berlin while raising her daughter Zoe (Sophia Ally) in a shared custody agreement with ex-husband James (Richard Armitage). Even in normal times, as we soon learn, the fumes of Isabelle and James’ relationship are bitter and toxic to the core, with shades of domestic abuse and accusations of parental neglect lobbed like grenades. But we are soon to enter abnormal territory when Zoe fails to wake up one morning, ostensibly under Isabelle’s watch, and her comatose body is ambulated to a hospital for an emergency surgery for intra-cranial bleeding.
So begins an accelerating nightmare, the worst possible scenario for any parent, as Zoe’s vitals continue to decline. “My Zoe” can be appropriately agonizing to watch. Initially it is to Delpy’s credit, as a tough and reality-bound filmmaker, to sidestep audiences’ desires for easy resolutions. You keep expecting the film to satisfy our (and the characters’) whims and wishes, only to find their lives compounded by another sad revelation.
But there is a change of tune, and tone, in the rogue second half of “My Zoe,” when Isabelle travels to Russia, her daughter’s genes in hand, to seek the services of Thomas Fischer (Daniel Bruhl), a renegade, ethically dubious fertility doctor. There are subtle hints of science fiction from the beginning of “My Zoe,” but this unexpected twist catapults the story into tomorrow’s cutting-edge of medical science, and the speculative frontier of post-CRISPR reproductive choice.
The film is endowed with its share of glaring flaws. In the corrosive interactions between Isabelle and James, Delpy wrote herself to be the angelic protagonist in an ugly custody battle, sequestering Armitage in the role of opportunistic, one-dimensional monster. For most of her screen time, Gemma Arterton is likewise saddled with the thankless part of Dr. Fischer’s buzzkill wife.
And there’s no denying that from a critical distance, Isabelle’s desire for a medical miracle is essentially harebrained. Without the art-house trappings of Delpy’s impressionistic direction, it’s easy to see such a scenario play out in some gauche soap opera. But Delpy, in her writing, directing and performance as a mother of obsessive, single-minded determination, treats the scenario with such deadly seriousness that we just about buy it. If you can, it’s worth playing along with the movie’s increasingly wild conceits, to see what Delpy may possibly give birth to next.
“My Zoe” is playing now at Movies of Wellington, AMC Pompano Beach 18, AMC Coral Ridge 10 in Fort Lauderdale, and other area theaters.