One of the first shots in the film Bird Box is Sandra Bullock frantically dispensing stern instructions to very young children without any tenderness in how she regards them. They’re all bundled up in mismatched clothing in a messy cabin; it’s unclear exactly what’s happening or what their relationship is to each other. My gut instinct was to assume “mother” but Bullock’s chilly distance gave me pause. I was still immediately intrigued by a woman whose tone would be so harsh with five-year-olds even while her actual words seem geared to ensuring their survival.
The scene quickly flashes back to five years earlier when you see Mallory (Bullock) very close to giving birth and not at all sold on the idea of being a mom. Her apartment is that of a messy single artist. Her supportive sister (Sarah Paulson) even seems shocked that she actually has an appointment to see her gynecologist. During the exam, the doctor (Parminder Nagra) — aware of Mallory’s hesitations — astutely and gently points out that adoption is a possible route. But then the world goes to hell.
The movie, out on December 21 on Netflix, is a sci-fi thriller anchored by Bullock’s Mallory not just learning to be a mother in a world facing an Armageddon-esque event, but realizing that she wants to be one. For the bulk of the film she flatly refers to the kids as “Boy” and “Girl,” demonstrating the distance she tries to create between herself and the act of motherhood. And even though Mallory acts as their guardian and protector, there are still moments in which she is mean enough to make Girl cry, and doing so doesn’t seem to faze her in the slightest. That the viewer isn’t immediately sure whether Mallory is a mom or not is kind of the point. It’s maybe even uncomfortable, that Miss Congeniality herself would slough off this most expected of female roles.
Seeing this, I felt utterly connected to her.
More than 12 years ago I had a medical procedure to remove some pre-cancerous cells that had stubbornly refused to disappear off my cervix. The doctor was hesitant to go through with it at first, because having a shortened cervix can be a risk factor for pregnancy complications. At that point, I decided I’d be adamantly against having kids, rather than wait for someone to tell me I couldn’t. And I found community within that decision, with the many women who chose to remain child-free. I was craving some semblance of control over my life, and they had it — a yes-or-no answer to a huge question. I was at doctor’s appointments every other month, anxiously awaiting test results; I had just extricated myself from an emotionally abusive relationship with the person I thought I’d marry one day, and something finally snapped inside me. I felt like a bystander who couldn’t find a safe foothold in her own life, who wanted to panic and scream “slow down, just give me a minute!” But couldn’t.
In the first flashback of Bird Box, Mallory is painting a portrait of a group of people on a canvas, and tells her sister it’s a piece about feeling disconnected. Her expression while she looks at the painting, while her sister talks about the baby and the baby’s father — both of whom Mallory seems not to want to directly acknowledge — is haunted and projects such a feeling of isolation that my chest constricted remembering that point in my life. Even with family who loved and supported me, I felt like I couldn’t connect to anything or anyone, that I would always be most comfortable alone. I think, subconsciously, I sought to avoid even the inkling of future pain. This was a decision I could own. I saw the same in Mallory’s face when she considered the adoption pamphlet. Here was a choice she could make to preserve her own isolation.
Eventually, Mallory and I both changed our minds.
For me, I had to learn to forgive myself for that relationship which stole so much from me. My ability to trust a partner, to trust my own judgment, and the rebuilding of my confidence all took years of listening to myself instead of plowing ahead with blinders on. Facing your life and acknowledging what’s happening in it can be the most terrifying experience, something that came rushing back when I watched Mallory’s initial refusal to acknowledge that her water had broken, that she was having contractions, and soon enough she would be a mother.
It wasn’t Armageddon that changed me, but growth I experienced in my mid-thirties and consecutively healthy relationships that made me confront a longing I felt when I was around my friends with kids. Something in me was starting to want that, too. I was learning that I had ascribed to a too-narrow definition to what it meant to be a mother — that one always had to be sure about it, and ooze lovingness of herself and others at all times — and it turns out there are other ways.
Sandra Bullock, who in real life adopted two children — Louis, 8, and Laila, 3 — expertly conveys the insecurity and tension of her character, who has been thrust into something she wasn’t sure she wanted or could handle. Mallory initially cannot intertwine the concepts of survival and love. Her harshness, the way she sometimes berates the kids, not naming them, it’s clear she thinks she’s doing what is necessary under catastrophic conditions, and that includes not showing she cares about them. She’s convinced this is the best and only way for everyone to survive. But over time, kinder moments creep in, instigated in part by Trevante Rhodes’ character reprimanding Mallory for her brusqueness. When all four of them savor some stale strawberry Pop-Tarts they find while scavenging, Mallory’s face softens ever so briefly at the sight of how delighted Boy and Girl are by the unexpected treat. It’s the beginning of her metamorphosis.
Later, as they are repeatedly thrust into terrifying escape scenarios in which Mallory is physically challenged again and again to protect them, she has to make a decision that could risk one of the children’s lives. Staring at both of them and hearing their unwavering trust in her, she gets it. She cradles them both and defiantly and tearfully screams at the evil dogging them that it won’t take her kids from her. This emotional and protective urgency propels her through the rest of the film.
Mallory’s denouement was not so impactful because it ties her up with a bow, suddenly the perfect carpool mom. She will undoubtedly continue to be flawed, questioning. But she recognizes that someone can be that, and also be a mom — a good enough one, who loves her children and does her best to keep them safe, two responsibilities that are the crux of parenthood in the real world, apocalypse or not. Plus, she accepts that it is okay for her to want that, and to believe there is more to all of us than our fear.
By breaking from her sassy and slapstick girl-next-door formula for Bird Box, Sandra Bullock delivers a strong lesson. It can be scary to give a name to the love you feel, or the love you want, or the one you maybe weren’t ready for and aren’t sure you deserve. It’s not always “appealing” to admit that’s how you feel. But it sure is refreshing to see it onscreen.