The utopia of white picket fence domesticity was memorably exposed as a sham in Peter Weir’s eerily prescient The Truman Show. The idyllic Seahaven Island where Jim Carey’s Truman Burbank lives is revealed to be an enormous sound stage within a dome, and his entire life the subject of a reality television show. Like Truman, the young couple in Lorcan Finnegan’s Vivarium find themselves trapped in a nightmarish artificial suburbia in this Black Mirror or Twilight Zone-esque oddity. Something of a sci-fi fairy tale, Vivarium has moments of skin-crawling unease, but struggles to maintain tension into its final third or say anything original about parenthood.
The opening images of a tiny bird forced to feed a huge cuckoo chick is an unsubtle but efficient introduction to this fable of a monstrous changeling. Primary school teacher Gemma (Imogen Poots) and landscaper Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are presented with an ideal new home by an estate agent with an unnerving grin, played by the scene-stealing character actor Jonathan Aris. Yonder is a vast, completely deserted new housing development where straight roads are flanked by identical houses. The permanently blue sky is filled with cartoonishly fluffy white clouds. Gemma bitterly observes that these clouds never look like anything else; they’re just cloud-shaped clouds.
After showing them inside Number 9 the estate agent and his car vanish, and Gemma and Tom are left completely alone. Inevitably, every road they drive down to try to escape magically leads them back to Number 9. Eating fairy food means you’re doomed to become their prisoner, and Gemma and Tom make the mistake of eating the strawberries and drinking the champagne left in the fridge. In the morning they find a baby boy in a cardboard box on their doorstep, with the instruction to raise it to win their freedom.
Though Vivarium is ostensibly a two-hander, its Imogen Poots as Gemma who gets more of a chance to shine as she attempts to mother this hideous cuckoo, while Eisenberg’s Tom spends most of his time digging up their lawn to try to tunnel his way out. The baby grows up impossibly quickly, and it’s around ten-year-old incarnation shrieks until he is presented with his breakfast and imitates his “parents” in a distorted sing-song voice. Both are repulsed, but while Tom views him only as an “it”, Gemma is more conflicted. “I’m not your fucking mother” she insists, but she can’t seem to prevent herself from reluctantly caring for him. Her struggle with this forced motherhood is by far the most compelling element of the film and Poots brings a believable tenderness, fury and resignation to her role.
Sadly, while newcomer Senan Jennings as the child is unsettling and Finnegan knows how to use him to rattle his audience’s nerves, the overarching concept feels rather stale. The ending, clearly intended to be a sting in the film’s tail, is hardly the shock Finnegan seems to think it is, and the film deflates as it reaches its conclusion. While this could’ve been a prime opportunity to explore the complexities of modern motherhood and the notion of having it all, the message essentially boils down to “parenting is hard, and sometimes you’ll wish you’d never done it.” Vivarium feels like high-budget anthology television, and perhaps an episode you’ve seen before.
by Laura Venning
Laura Venning is a Film Studies MA student from London. She’s particularly interested in female directors and Australian and New Zealand cinema. Her favourite films include A Matter of Life and Death, The Piano, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Cléo from 5 to 7. You can find her on twitter at @laura_venning
Reviewing this later this week. Meanwhile.
https://monthlycritic.wordpress.com/2020/03/30/system-crasher/ My latest (and best) review if you fancy reading. Compulsive viewing.