Having a wife who’s a doula can be very informative, especially when it comes to film or television depictions of birth and the events surrounding it, from baby showers to prenatal visits. When I get to watch screenings with Jenn – who’s attended over 500 births – I always get the scoop on how real or not these portrayals are. But I also have to remind myself that movies and TV aren’t meant to be real; they’re supposed to push buttons and get you to react. And my goodness, Alexis Jacknow and her film Clock push a whole lot of ‘em.
I’m not one of those people who believe that every woman has to have a child in order to fulfill her life’s purpose or whatever. We’re all just people on this earth walking our own paths, and not every path is the same. But the societal pressure we put on women to procreate to propagate the species is unbearable. I’ve had many friends who’ve borne the wrath of those finger-pointers, the people who turn vicious when they hear that a woman doesn’t want kids… and it is, quite frankly, no one else’s business except theirs.
Right away, Jacknow gets us into this uncomfortable, last-scene-of-Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque glarefest that Ella (Dianna Agron) has to withstand at a friend’s baby shower. When a group of mothers or mothers-to-be corner the only childless woman at the party, of course, someone’s gonna say, “When’re you going to start a family?” And when the answer – that Ella doesn’t want kids – is taken out of her mouth by her well-meaning friend, the shaming starts.
“No. You want kids.” “It’s the best thing that’ll ever happen to you.” (Margaux Susi is absolutely maddening in this sequence, which is to be taken as a compliment.) On and on and on, these women press their attack, not allowing Ella – who is her own person and can make her own decisions – to have a say in any of it. Right away, we’re put off by the fact that these women are casting their judgments and lambasting Ella for living her best life, as we see in a quick-cut montage – the architect/interior design work she does, recreational activities, spa treatments, sexytime with her husband Aidan (Jay Ali), among other things.
It’s as if her agency depends on having children; note that these friends of hers talk over her and talk at her to tell her what she wants, denying her any agency at all. This short sequence alone was already enough to make me angry on Ella’s behalf; why do these people make like authority figures and fairly demand she start a family? But when her OB/GYN tells her that she’s considered “geriatric” as far as bearing children – she’s soon to be 38 – she confesses that her biological clock never kicked in, whereupon her doctor says said clock might be “broken.”
(Which, of course, was the biggest of several red flags Jenn pointed out during this examination – in her words: “A lot of consent issues in that whole scene. It leads me to believe that Alexis Jacknow has never been to a doctor that respected women… we are more than walking wombs. She’s not wrong in bringing those experiences out.”)
At this doctor’s suggestion, she participates in a clinical trial run by Dr. Elizabeth Simmons (Melora Hardin) which purports to be able to kickstart women’s clocks to help them at least open up to the possibility of pregnancy. The last thing Ella wants is anything artificial or unnatural, giving into with Dr. Simmons’ assurances with some trepidation, but ultimately going along with the program, believing that it’s what she wants and that it’ll make Aidan happy. However, as the treatment progresses, we get the sense that something’s not quite right, even though the results are exactly what Dr. Simmons wants.
But it all comes back to what Ella wants and her utter lack of agency throughout the film. Looking back at the film, there are only three points in the film where her actions are of her own volition, with her choice to endure this clinical trial being the first (and, seemingly, most innocuous). Jacknow – who cameos as a fellow patient in a fast meta role – espouses the belief that pregnancy and birth are no longer healthcare, but an industry that churns out baby after baby with no heed paid to the mental and physical toll taken on the woman who has to do all the work.
As Clock’s main cog, Dianna Agron possesses the skill to put Ella through the wringer, going from self-made and happy to an utter wreck over the course of the month-long timeframe of this film. She neither oversteps nor underplays; she hits every note necessary to translate Ella’s slide into medicine-induced mental illness, offset by her scene partners who pretend that it’s just hormonal nerves. Agron is a powerhouse, fueling the film from the first minute to its last; while her character’s struggles and wealth seem very First World Problem-ish, it’s not enough to detract from the fact that Ella has succumbed to external pressure, and Agron gives Ella the chance to springboard from these trappings and earn our sympathies without demanding them.
Just as much can be said about Ella’s opposite, the slick Dr. Simmons, played slyly by Melora Hardin. There’s a hidden hand of dark, menacing control that Hardin imparts to Dr. Simmons; she’s not just pulling the strings, but she also makes sure that she’s got the scissors to cut them, if necessary. Jacknow’s script makes room for Dr. Simmons to embrace her work with a dialed-back intensity, rejoicing in the results of the supposed “magic” her underhanded, near-Ludovico Technique methods yield. She’s placid and calm when she needs to be, even to the point of successfully shielding a barely-veiled panic when one of her patients bloodies herself unexpectedly, making us believe that it’s the patient’s mania – not anything that she herself has done – that’s the problem.
Alexis Jacknow has fleshed her “Bite Size Halloween” short film (bearing the same name and likewise on Hulu) into an astonishing, harrowing debut feature with unbridled confidence in her tone and direction. The thematic and cinematic choices she makes are applied like an electric current that thrust us fully into Ella’s headspace while compelling us to consider the ramifications of the pressure we put on women to act as broodmares for humanity, regardless of the consequences. As mentioned before, this film pushes a lot of buttons without explaining everything, leaving us space to ponder what we’ve just experienced. And when you’ve got a doula – who knows exactly what kind of expectations doctors and others project on mothers-to-be – on your side and seething with anger, you know you’ve done something right.