Sometime in 2011, Sonia Hermosillo, a mother of three, was arrested for her involvement in the death of her second child, who she had allegedly tossed from the fourth floor of a parking garage. Toward the end of When the Bough Breaks, a team led by director Jamielyn Lippman and producers Tanya Newbould and Lindsay Gerszt film themselves driving up to the Orange County Women’s Jail, where Hermosillo has been held since then, awaiting trial after a protracted legal debate on her mental fitness to stand trial. Lippman and her crew look to the camera and perform the confused pantomime of someone trying to figure something out on reality television. Eventually, they reveal that Hermosillo, surprisingly, doesn’t want to join the voices on display in a Brooke Shields-narrated exploration of postpartum depression among mothers in the greater suburbs of Los Angeles.
While Lippman’s choice of title is almost hilariously inane (beyond Spike Lee’s wittier use of the title for a documentary about Hurricane Katrina, there are no less than three thrillers by the title and one PBS special on the infant mortality rates among African Americans, among other things), none of those things have the voice of Brooke Shields. Nor are they about postpartum depression, a subject rarely explored outside of headline news and freshman college papers on Rosemary’s Baby, but it’s a pity that Lippman’s sentiments are ill-equipped to tackle an issue with angles greater than: gee, people sure need to know more. “In the days and weeks following childbirth, support is critical. Whether it is family, friends or hired help, extra hands around the house are crucial,” Shields’s narration opines, as if only the suggestion of hiring a nanny or getting in contact with some nearby and unemployed family member had simply not occurred to the documentary’s cavalcade of suffering mothers.
They are interesting and, at times, provide vivid insight into the mind of motherhood outside of the doting and loving image that so often recedes into the background of the imagination shortly after childbirth. “I remember walking up the stairs, with her in my arms, and thinking, ‘If I just smashed her head into the wall, we could both sleep,’” a mother who refuses to give her full name tells Lippman’s camera. Others confess insecurity at looking on loving mothers and their children and knowing they did not feel the same. Not included among these voices is Ms. Shields, herself, most recently a bit-player on Michael Bolton’s Big, Sexy Valentine’s Day Special. Her connection to the issue stems from a very public feud the actress has with Tom Cruise over her use of antidepressants to combat postpartum depression back in 2005, as it conflicted with Scientology’s view on psychiatry. The next year, Shields put out a memoir about her experiences titled Down Came The Rain, which was excerpted in magazines like People and Good Housekeeping and made oodles of dough. Lippmann provides a montage of clips from Shields’s promotional appearances on Today and Oprah but, otherwise, is unable to give us much of our narrating host.
Lippman’s central characters include herself and two of the movie’s producers.
Instead, we are treated to foibles Lippman films of herself, Newbould and Gerszt as they discuss their own experiences with motherhood and depression. The depiction of somewhat-wealthy LA suburbanites weaving in between nannies, Mommy and Me classes and expensive-looking transcranial magnetic stimulation treatment (a somewhat updated form of electroshock therapy) brings to mind the geographically-shared territory of HBO’s Big Little Lies or one of those Real Housewives spinoffs. In fact, one of the few star mothers that Lippman is able to rally is Peggy Tanous, who was once in Real Housewives of Orange County. More notable is Aarti Sequeira, star of Aarti Party, a Food Network program that was canceled a few years ago. She tells something about maternity practices being better in India. Elsewhere a licensed acupuncturist by the name of Maoshing Ni assures us that maternity practices are better in Asia. I guess. Diana Lynn Barnes, a psychotherapist at the Center for Postpartum Health, provides interesting insights in front of a vaguely futurist painting, but many of the doctors that When the Bough Breaks consults are men, which occasionally feels weird. At some point, Ni tells us that pregnancy is like “running several marathons continuously without resting,” a sort of empty metaphor in the mouth of a fellow in a suit.
Their explorations remain thunderously surface-level. In a country where maternity leave isn’t guaranteed and healthcare is not a universal right, Lippman’s call for mandatory postpartum depression screenings feel limp when the movie doesn’t bother adopting a position on either healthcare or maternity leave. Elsewhere, an argument is made for legally and culturally de-stigmatizing mothers who suffer from postpartum psychosis; the United Kingdom’s Infanticide Act of 1938 is given as a positive example: it prevents mothers from being charged with a felony when involved in the death of their own child under 12 months of age. Lippman connects the issue with the larger stigmas associated with mental illness and pharmaceutical treatment, which is smart. But it makes me wonder why no mention is made of the bigger infanticide news items of recent history: the Kathleen Folbiggs or Andrea Yateses of the popular imagination. Would they have complicated things? Or stretched Lippman’s argument to less hospitable terrain?
Economic pressure goes unmentioned but once, as a possible variable among many on a blurry graphic. Graphics remain in the territory of the ordination video, and font choices are somewhat questionable. As frustrated as the mothers Lippman interviews appear to be at the cultural expectations of motherhood, When the Bough Breaks aims itself at mothers or those soon-to-be. Toward the end, all interviewed talk about how, happily, they eventually accustomed to the joys of motherhood. Even Angela Burling, convicted of drowning her first infant in the late ’80s, tells Lippman how much happiness her next child ended up bringing her. Joyous strings play.
“I think what you guys might not have realized is that the reason you are doing this film was to help women,” Gerszt says at a certain point to Lippman, betwixt tears, “and you already helped me.” More strings follow and Lippman, later, throws along 20 minutes of mothers and their concerned husbands chatting it out at the movie’s end. They are happy that the movie they are in has brought them together. But is it enough?