Movie Review: “Nature vs. Nurture” takes a comic pummeling in “Birthmarked”

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It’s the quotation that opens the quirky Canadian comedy “Birthmarked” that gives away the game.

“I think of a new born baby as a blank book,” Walt Disney once said.

And as this uneven but amusing romp unfolds, with its scientist parents setting out to raise three kids in ways that contradict their genetic family history, you can’t help but think of “Little Einsteins.” That Disney TV series was a concept the company bought from folks who were just sure that exposing toddlers to Beethoven, Great Books and Big Science would make them grow up smarter. It didn’t work.  

But back in 1977, husband and wife scientists Catherine and Ben Morin (Toni Collette, Matthew Goode) wouldn’t know that. They pitch an eccentric, science-backing millionaire (Michael Smiley of “Free Fire” and “Rogue One”) the ultimate “Nature vs. Nurture” experiment.

“No one is a prisoner of their genetic heritage!”

They will raise three kids — Luke, their own son, the product of generations of scientists, taught from birth to be an artist, his every free expression praised and nurtured; Maya, adopted from a family of “simpletons,” taught and told she’s “brilliant” at every turn, and Maurice, adopted adopt from a long line of aggressive males, raised to be a pacifist, “like the Mahatma.”

We get a quick introduction to that upbringing — seeing years of exposure to Puccini, Mozart, complex concepts, with exercises bending them towards those end results. Luke (Jordan Poole) channels his hurt feelings into playing the blues, Maurice (Anton Gillis-Adelman) is forced to meditate away his tendency to tease and torment his siblings, with Maya (Megan O’Kelly) encouraged to intellectualize everything.

Catherine is into the project, but more accepting of what she sees the deviations of “any normal dysfunctional family.” Ben is totally into the experiment, all about “Anger Discharge Training” and “Stimulated Self Emotions” exercises.

But the kids? At 12, they’re starting to act out, befuddling their parents, arching the eyebrow of their Soviet defector Olympian research assistant (Andreas Aspergis).  Their roughhousing develops an edge, they stage a grossly “inappropriate” play based on “Letters to Penthouse,” and at every opportunity, they mouth off.

“Come on, you’re smarter than that.”

“Apparently not.”

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Canadian director Emmanuel Hoss-Desmaris and screenwriter Marc Tulin (“Whitewash”) find their laughs around the fringes of what seems a more promising set-up than it actually is. Ben’s lifelong obsession with lady equestrians makes for an interesting sex life, and kids raised in a psychological environment addressing their parents in the jargon of self-help can be funny.

“Mom! Dig DEEP. Find that inner serenity!”

The kids get short shrift in the story, and without doing more with them, “Birthmarked” never gets its hands on the weird relationships between loving but experimenting parents and their kids, the subjects of that experiment. The experiment itself has a funny but predictable and barely-sketched in arc, from meticulous to off the rails in rather too abrupt a fashion.

And the parental relationship is a little thin, too, as if the writer and director were too invested in setting up a twist, using science experiment graphics and expecting droll, ironic narration by Fionnula Flanagan, playing a personal assistant to the millionaire who witnesses this years-long debacle-in-the-making, to cover the film’s comic shortcomings.

Collette ably gets across a woman finally questioning what they’ve been doing to their kids while Goode does a decent job suggesting a man dogmatic in his determination to see this project through. Smiley’s millionaire Gertz is a cartoonish figure without the colors drawn in.

If the kids are shortchanged in the movie, that just mirrors what they might lack in such an environment — quality time, constructive child-rearing and socialization. They can quote “Playful teasing builds character,” but that doesn’t mean that the boundaries being hammered into them are the right ones.

Frustrating as it is, this scruffy, misshapen farce still has laugh-out-loud lines, and lightly-amusing send-ups of an idea that has intuition going for it, and little else. Maybe taking child-rearing advice from the likes of Walt Disney isn’t the best idea.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, slapstick violence, sexual situations, alcohol, profanity

Cast: Toni Collette, Matthew Goode, Michael Smiley, Fionnoula Flanagan, Andreas Apergis, Suzanne Clement

Credits:Directed by Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais, script by Marc Tulin . A Vertical Entertainment release.

Running time: 1:27

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