As someone who had a baby just a few months before COVID and raised him through lockdowns and mass protests and insurrections, I can say with some authority that it is a profoundly weird time to be raising a child. This same thought was clearly on the mind of Paula Rhodes, who took the idea to its logical conclusion: what would it be like to become pregnant, only to watch the nation fall into civil war around you as the pregnancy progressed?
This was not just an idle thought for Rhodes, a former St. Louisan who wrote and directed Delicate State. Rhodes and her husband, fellow actor Charlie Bodin, were actually expecting, and the movie was filmed during the course of her pregnancy. And this was, of course, during 2020, so the film was largely shot at home with the two not only as the stars of the film but also as the crew.
Which means, yes, this is one of those “found footage”-style pseudo-documentaries where the characters are filming themselves with a handheld camera. The early parts of the movie can be a bit of a rough watch, between the nausea-inducing camerawork and the weirdly choppy editing, but it eventually finds its footing and the camera technique just becomes an unobtrusive part of the movie’s atmosphere.
Delicate State is a bomb with a long fuse, but that just makes it all the more satisfying when it finally explodes. The early, joyful moments of the couple’s pregnancy feel very, very real…so real, you wonder if the pair is acting at all or if they actually filmed Paula taking a pregnancy test or calling her parents with the news. But then that joy starts fraying around the edges—in little things at first, like ominous helicopters flying overhead or a flyer on the door notifying of the nearest bomb shelter. Taking advantage of the scope that the movie has established—small, filmed at home with handheld cameras—Rhodes ratchets up the action with things that are heard but not seen: a neighbor being arrested in the night while Rhodes cowers on the other side of her door, a too-close-to-home explosion whose rubble (clearly a convenient real building demolition) is revealed after-the-fact. But then the pair hit the road to track down Paula’s sister, who has hunkered down in a cabin in the woods, and the scope of the film blows wide open, revealing a much bigger movie than its quiet beginnings implied. The end results of that slow burn are so, so satisfying.
Though she impresses as writer and director, Rhodes shines brightest as an actress. Her lengthy résumé is filled mostly with voiceover work in video games and animation (her longest running gig, for example, is as the voices of Skipper and Stacie in a variety of Barbie projects) but she proves to be a powerhouse in front of the camera, perfectly capturing her character’s desperation as the world falls apart around her and willing to lay her character’s frustrations, and her own pregnant belly, totally bare. This feature marks her first as a director. With any luck, we’ll see more of Rhodes on both sides of the camera. | Jason Green
Delicate State will screen at the Tivoli Theatre (6350 Delmar Blvd.) on Saturday, November 20th at 2:00pm as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival with an appearance by director Paula Rhodes. The film is also available for streaming virtually through Sunday, November 21st. Further information about tickets, passes, forms of access, and the complete film lineup is available from the SLIFF 2021 website.