It’s not that Jamielyn Lippman’s When the Bough Breaks: A Documentary About Postpartum Depression is a bad movie. It’s well intentioned, heartfelt, and even more importantly, absolutely necessary. After all, postpartum depression is one of the least talked about medical conditions facing women. Despite being the leading complication of pregnancy, it’s almost never screened or tested for. Most of the millions of women who suffer from it don’t seek help, either because they simply don’t know the condition exists or are scared of social stigma which might label them as personally irresponsible, unfit for motherhood, or mentally unstable. The world needs comprehensive education about postpartum depression and its effects. And documentaries are a great way to start. But not this one.
Now I have to ask: is there a special place in hell for critics who pan documentaries on postpartum depression? Documentaries where teary eyed women recount suicidal episodes immediately after childbirth? Of the regret felt by the few who succeeded? A documentary which ends with intertitles announcing that two of its interview subjects killed themselves shortly after filming? Well, I suppose I’m about to find out.
The problem is that When the Bough Breaks is at turns sloppy, amateurish, and overly sentimental. Lippman—an actress whose only other directorial effort was a 2010 documentary about the lives of Hollywood actors which starred herself—has little grasp of how to order the disparate elements of her various subjects into a cohesive, tonally homogeneous whole.
Consider the opening of the film. We see footage of young mothers discovering they’re pregnant and later playing with their children. Narrator Brooke Shields—whose public spat with actor/Scientologist Tom Cruise over her use of psychiatric drugs to cope with postpartum depression was a watershed moment for public awareness towards the complication—gently croons about the joys of motherhood. She then abruptly mentions how 1 in 5 mothers will face postpartum depression. Cut to interview footage of Lindsay Gerszt, one of the film’s main subjects (and main producers), recounting how her life collapsed shortly after childbirth. Cut to a brief montage of screaming babies and ambulance lights. Cut to mothers weeping, mothers happily kissing their babies, mothers bottle-feeding newborns. And the whole time a syrupy sweet song full of twinkling piano and soft acoustic guitar drones on in the background before climaxing with a singer declaring again and again: “All we can do is keep breathing.” This whole opening creates such a powerful sense of emotional cognitive dissonance that it borders on the surreal.
The rest of the film staggers from one point of interest to another with little rhyme or reason. Parts of it are strictly informative, interviewing doctors and medical specialists who rally off facts and figures about the disorder, how it can be identified, and how it can be treated. Parts are biographical. Lippman devotes a sizable chunk of the run-time to Gerszt’s struggle with postpartum depression, her desire to get a movie made about it, and her relationship with Lippman and producer Tanya Newbloud. During one scene where these three young, blonde, and conventionally attractive white women sit together on a couch, we realize just how limited the film’s scope is. Besides a few short interview clips with Indian-American celebrity chef Aarti Sequeria, an Asian pregnancy specialist, and an African-American postpartum depression survivor, almost the entire film is told from the perspective of well-to-do white women. This gets hammered home when a number of reality TV stars show up to talk about their experiences. I in no way want to minimize their very real, very significant struggles. But it seems a bit odd that the film would focus so much time on such well-off subjects while almost completely ignoring the tens of millions of lower-class, impoverished women with postpartum depression. How do the working poor deal with it? How do homeless women, women without access to specialized clinics offering alternative treatments like hypnosis and acupuncture, women without extensive support systems deal with it? When the Bough Breaks demonstrates little to no interest in exploring these things. And until somebody does, this public health crisis will not begin to abate.