It’s a fascinating thing to watch a director’s work evolve over a 10-year period, particularly if the director is a woman moving from her 20s to her 30s, the pressing concerns changing with every year. Marianna Palka debuted in 2008 with her film “Good Dick,” exploring the relationship between a dysfunctional young video-store clerk and a man who rents his porn from her. It’s a darkly comic film obsessed with the desperation of youth and the desire for connection, themes that found its way into her next two films, “I’m the Same” and “Always Worthy.”
But something has shifted in Palka’s work in the past few years, a change marked with 2017’s “Bitch,” about a stay-at-home mom who snaps and begins acting like a rabid dog. This is a film searching to examine the deficiencies of traditional gender dynamics in marriage and family, poking holes in the perfect life portrayed in cereal commercials. Palka’s latest film, “Egg,” written by newcomer Risa Mickenberg, comes off like a continuation of “Bitch,” or perhaps even an explanation of it, how the act of a woman defying gender norms can destroy relationships but also save the self.
Alysia Reiner (“Orange Is the New Black”) plays Tina, an artist working through her ambivalent or hostile feelings toward motherhood in a new series. She’s flighty and self-conscious as she and her husband Wayne (Gbenga Akinnagbe, “The Deuce”) prepare for the arrival of Tina’s best friend Karen (Christina Hendricks) and Karen’s husband Don (David Alan Basche, “The Exes”). The use of “best friend” is flexible, here, as Tina and Karen rarely see one another and display very little in common as grown adult women on different paths. Nonetheless, they remain connected via the invisible thread of young adult female bonding that allows them to oscillate between antagonism and deep connection.
The first words out of Tina’s mouth when Karen arrives are proclamations of how gigantic Karen has gotten, which Karen swallows with an uneasy smile. Tina views Karen’s eight-month-pregnant belly as a kind of weapon of femininity, intruding into Tina’s space and reminding her that she has chosen a less traditional path; we find out later on that Tina and Wayne are expecting a child as well, only a surrogate will be birthing it.
Meanwhile, Wayne dotes on Karen with a paternalistic glee, offering her an array of pregnancy-safe food and drink, commenting on her pleasant smell and plump appearance, which only grates on Tina further. Throughout, it’s tit for tat, with each character in this chamber piece waxing on happiness and desire. The best chunk of the script comes when the men have left the apartment to pick up Tina and Wayne’s surrogate, leaving Tina and Karen to prove why it is they’ve kept in touch all these years; Reiner and Hendricks evoke a familiarity and vulnerability, perfect opponents and allies equally.
Tina picks and picks on Karen, taking out all of her anxieties about motherhood on her pregnant friend, without realizing Karen may have secret anxieties of her own. But “Egg” makes clear that, in some way, choosing to have children or not have children is a form of survival. In Tina’s case, she frees herself from the physical discomfort and emotional bond of a baby to complete her artwork; she says she’d rather have the freedom of being the child’s “father,” which visibly angers Don, a character who could have courted Joan in “Mad Men,” but still of the contemporary world.
Tina accuses Don of being afraid of her, because she chooses not to be a traditional woman, thereby threatening his dominance as a man. It’s a beautiful little speech and offers, surprisingly, some of the better dialogue in the script, considering that the men here are actually the weakest element of this story and largely function as archetypes.
The trajectory of the film is a bit extreme, with everything coming to a head in the span of a roughly real-time 90 minutes, and yet Reiner and Hendricks work to manage the tension, inflating and diffusing until the pressure pops this delicate bubble. “Egg” calls to mind the work of other overt feminist filmmakers, like Sally Potter, who also took a stab at a film that plays out like a contained, absurdist stage production with the recent “The Party.”
There is truth in this story, even if the ending becomes unwieldy. One can equally cringe at each woman’s justifications for having or not having children, illuminating the tiresome fact that there is no right way for a cis woman to age into the world. But it’s also simply nice to see Palka embracing the messiness of feminist theses as she progresses in her career, and if she continues delivering a movie a year, someday we’ll likely be able to examine the full life of a woman through the entirety of her body of work.