The Business of Birth Control


Reproductive autonomy or a death sentence?

(2021) Documentary (Bobb) Holly Grigg-Spall, Joe Malone, Lisa Hendrickson Jack, Karen Langhart, Rick Ammon, Sara Gottfried, Emily Moonbeam Varnam, John O’Dea, Rick Langhart, Kelsey Knight, Aviva Romm, Jolene Bright, Lara Bridon, Alisa Vitti, Vicki Spratt, Ørvind Lidegaard, Chelsea Vonchaz, Sara Hill, Julie Holland, Gessie Thomson, Erika Schwartz, Ashley Malone. Directed by Abby Epstein

 

One of the things that turned out to be an epochal turn of events for women was the availability of hormonal birth control. With birth control, it gave women the freedom to determine when and if they got pregnant. It allowed them to have careers and plan their families around finances rather than the other way around. Most feminists look at birth control as a watershed development in feminism.

Doctors prescribe birth control to women for many non-reproductive issues; painful and/or irregular menstruation, skin issues, PCOS and endometriosis, among other things. But is it the panacea that it is made out to be? Studies are beginning to show that it is not, linking hormonal birth control with increased susceptibility to depression (even leading up to suicide), autoimmune disease, cervical cancer and potentially fatal blood clots.

With reproductive rights under fire threatening to turn back the clock on women’s bodily autonomy, it might be misconstrued to release a documentary on the dangers of birth control at this moment, but according to director Abby Epstein and producer Ricki Lake (the former talk show host), the movie is not meant to fill a political agenda but to give women potentially life-saving information.

The side effects of hormonal birth control is not something that is really being discussed. Most women on the left are afraid that the right could end up hijacking the conversation about reproductive rights and using the facts in this documentary to say “See?!? Birth control is BAD!!!” And folks, that isn’t the case, nor are the filmmakers saying that hormonal birth control is the ONLY option for women. In the final act of the film they actually list several other methods that are currently available that are less potentially harmful.

One of the film’s talking points is that Big Pharma has made a fortune on birth control and continues to; in fact, the companies that developed hormonal birth control were aware of the potentially fatal side effects going back to when they were testing the product back in the Fifties (they tested in Puerto Rico because they didn’t want to test the product on white women). The Nelson pill hearings, back in the early ‘70s, uncovered some of these abuses but have been mainly swept under the rug until now.

The filmmakers talk to body literacy advocates, the bereaved parents of young, healthy women who died due to the side effects of the pill, and feminist activists who want women to have safe choices for birth prevention. The testimony is sobering and compelling. Particularly heart wrenching is the testimony of Joe and Dana Malone, and their  daughters Ashley and Morgan, discussing the death of Brittany Malone, a healthy, vivacious young woman who collapsed while at a nightclub with her sisters. Blooc clots in her lungs had gotten into her heart, causing her to have a number of heart attacks. Put on life support, she was eventually pronounced brain dead.

The film also portrays the FDA as an agency that is less interested in protecting consumers than it is in expediting the process of getting products into the marketplace. When Malone and fellow parents of women whose lives were cut short by their use of birth control advocated black label warnings on birth control packages to warn women about the porentially fatal side effects, they were fought tooth and nail by the drug industry. It is interesting to note that the potentially fatal side effect for Viagra – long-term erections – have always been well-publicized by the drug industry.

This is an eye-opening film and should be viewed by every woman and every parent with a daughter who is becoming of an age when sexual activity is a possibility. It isn’t enough to just accept what your doctor has to say – a large percentage of women feel their doctors don’t listen to them about their own reproductive health according to studies – but they need to understand what their options are and insist on them. It is always a good idea to know what you are putting into your body and what it can potentially do to you. It can literally be a matter of life or death.

REASONS TO SEE: Tackles a subject rarely talked about. A sobering gut punch. More damnation for Big Pharma, knowing the potentially fatal side effects and not adequately warning anybody. The family of Brittany Malone give particularly compelling testimony.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little talking-head centric.
FAMILY VALUES: There is adult subject matter, sexual content and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nearly 50% of all women who start hormonal birth control from an early age will face increased incidents of depression.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Doc NYC online (until November 28)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Business of Being Born
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Objects

The Skeleton Twins


Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader reminisce about their SNL days.

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader reminisce about their SNL days.

(2014) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook, Kathleen Rose Perkins, Joanna Gleason, Paul Castro Jr., Eddie Schweighardt, Sydney Lucas, Ian Hyland, Genevieve Adams, Jennifer Lafleur, Truck Hudson, Cliff Moylan, David Garelik. Directed by Craig Johnson

Nobody is guaranteed an easy life. Between financial troubles, relationship woes, career issues, medical difficulties and scores of other stresses, happiness can be an elusive quality. Some of us have the ability to deal with life’s twists and turns. Others, not so much.

The Skeleton Twins opens with Milo (Hader) attempting suicide. His twin sister Maggie (Wiig) is quite coincidentally, also considering suicide but when she is informed that her brother has been hospitalized she flies out to Los Angeles.

The two haven’t spoken in ten years and it is clear Milo is perfectly happy to extend that streak but Maggie perseveres and gets Milo to move in with her and her happy-go-lucky husband Lance (Wilson). Milo isn’t terribly enthusiastic at first and is a bit stand-offish with his twin but eventually begins to warm up.

He also begins to revert to old habits. He goes and sees Rich (Burrell), his old English teacher with whom he had an affair with when he was just 15, leading to Rich’s dismissal as a teacher when Maggie turned them in. It’s most definitely not a healthy relationship but Milo, as many of us will do, pursues it nevertheless. For Maggie’s part she is stressed by the fact that Lance wants to have kids and although she’s agreed to try is taking birth control behind his back. That, and she’s cheating on him with a parade of adult education instructors she’s been having affairs with, the most recent being her hunky Aussie scuba instructor Billy (Holbrook).

Part of Maggie’s reluctance towards motherhood stems from her own attitude toward her flighty, New Age-y mother (Gleason) who seems to care more about her own self-discovery than in nurturing her kids. While Milo seems to have made at least some peace with her, Maggie still has clearly not forgiven her and her mom’s unexpected appearance sends Maggie on a downward spiral.

Neither twin is coping well with life. Milo, a failed actor whose string of relationships have all ended in disaster, suspects that he peaked in high school, a fate that his father had predicted for the kids that tormented him for his femininity. Maggie has a great husband but still has mommy issues and especially, daddy issues – their father self-checked out when they were both kids – and is afraid of losing what she does have. Both snipe at each other and take out petty vengeance on one another until it appears that they will once again go their own separate ways.

The interesting thing about The Skeleton Twins is that we see glimpses of Milo and Maggie as kids and there isn’t any doubt that the two were very much there for each other and supported each other despite their own differentness. Clearly that bond has been sundered over the years, but it’s still there at the end of the day. Casting SNL veterans Hader and Wiig as the twins was a masterstroke. The two have a long history together and are very comfortable with each other, much in the way of siblings, and it shows. They are totally believable as twins, even though the physical resemblance is marginal at best.

Hader, in particular, shows the kind of layered performance that he just doesn’t get to show in the myriad sketch performances and supporting roles he’s had. Milo’s inner pain is palpable and when he gets drunk, which is often, his self-loathing is even more evident. Still, he keeps putting himself out there which is admirable and even though he is occasionally hateful and snide, he is infinitely relatable. This is if you’ll excuse the pun, his coming-out party as an actor, serving notice that he is more than just a wacky comic actor. He’s got depth.

Wiig also has some terrific moments. I’m less a fan of her work post-SNL but she can be a terrific actress when given the right material and this is certainly the right material. She, like Hader, has to convey a great deal of self-loathing here. Unlike Milo, Maggie is very aware that what she’s doing is destructive and wrong, but ultimately can’t help herself. At some deeper level, Maggie is looking to punish herself and wants Lance to find out about her improprieties. While Wiig isn’t as spectacular a performance as Hader, it is nonetheless solid and commendable.

Water is used as a motif here; most of the really major events have some sort of water element in them, from the opening scene when Milo slashes his wrists in the bathtub to the scuba lessons in a local pool to the goldfish swimming placidly in an aquarium. Water often denotes life in the movies and it does to an extent here but it is also a metaphor for death as goldfish do die (although obviously Milo does not). There is another event involving Maggie late in the film that I don’t want to give specifics about in the interest of not giving away too much but it also takes place in water.

While some of the time it feels like they’re pushing too hard to be funny (i.e. the scene in the dentist’s office where Maggie works) writer/director Johnson strikes a nice balance between humor and pathos throughout the movie, allowing for maximum catharsis. Suicide is definitely not an easy subject to deal with and it hangs over the movie like a Damoclean sword. Johnson leaves a lot of that subject unspoken, preferring to illustrate how the twins are affected by the suicide of their father and their own tendencies towards it visually without resorting to much discussion on the subject. It doesn’t really allow for a great deal of illumination but it does give audiences the opportunity to come to their own conclusions.

In some ways the movie sounds grim but it really isn’t. It’s not all bright and sunny though so if you’re looking for an escape type of movie you’re better off seeking out something a little more brainless. If you don’t mind a little thought along with your laughter, this might be the tonic you’re looking for.

REASONS TO GO: Hader gives a nuanced performance. Good mix of funny and pathos.
REASONS TO STAY: Tries too hard for laughs sometimes.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of foul language, some sexuality and a bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anna Farris was originally cast as Maggie but had to drop out due to schedule conflicts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before I Disappear
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Dolphin Tale 2