Mixed media films are not particularly unique in and of themselves, but, when done well, they add an element of otherworldliness or imagination to the story. The rotoscoping in Waking Life (2001) empowers the scene with Timothy “Speed” Levitch to go from mere recitation of a poem into something alive with energy, giving visible form to Speed’s words which are powerful on their own, but dazzle with the addition of animation. For the 2016 documentary Life, Animated, the inclusion of animation served a dual purpose: as a replacement format for stories/memories where recordings either don’t exist or weren’t possible and as a thematic tie to the subject’s love of Disney animation. For director Yngvild Sve Flikke’s second feature film, Ninjababy, the use of animation is minimal and entirely powerful in its precision. Here, it’s used to make physical the shock and turmoil of the realization of not just an unexpected pregnancy, but an imminent delivery for a young woman who loves to draw.
Rakel (Kristine Kujath Thorp) will tell you she’s a mess. She doesn’t clean, isn’t very organized, enjoys drugs and drinking, and can’t decide on any one of the five things she’d like to do with her life. The one she loves the most is the idea of being a cartoonist, though she’d never say it, even though she spends a good deal of her free time drawing what she sees or feels. Just as she’s on the cusp of making at least one decision (making nerdy Mos (Nader Khademi) more than a one-night stand), she learns she’s pregnant, sending her world turning upside down at an increasingly exponential rate.
The pregnancy tale is not anything particularly new and has seen a recent uptick in releases like in serious drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020), comedy Unpregnant (2020), and road trip comedy Plan B (2021). These three films don’t denote anything more than a recent trend, but it is a relief to see stories from the female perspective exploring the options available to them when faced with a potential unwanted pregnancy. Removing the moral implications attributed to biological process, films like Never Rarely, Plan B, and Ninjababy focus solely on the central woman’s desires and reasons for choosing to opt-out of motherhood. Though not explored explicitly, it’s implied that Never Rarely’s pregnancy is a result of familial rape, while Plan B is clearly defined as a first-time gone wrong. Both of these instances allow the audience to consider different perspectives than the traditional “women bad for being sexual” narratives that hit American cinemas. There’s more than one reason for a woman to avail herself of medical treatment and who is anyone to deny them that? To great amusement, the script from Johan Fasting (Heimebane) in partnership with Flikke and Inga Sætre (It Was Mine), explores the notion that men are almost never held to the same standard of responsibility as women when it comes to sex. Granted, this is a film from Norway where the levels of social care and approach to reproduction is handled differently than in the United States, but the points remain the same: why should women have to go to such great lengths to enjoy sex safely while men almost never do? Men are just as responsible for safe sex, yet some refuse to do the simplest thing (wear a condom) whereas women are expected to use one of multiple forms of contraception likely after years of trial and error to find one that works for them (ranging from birth control pills to an invasive IUD), monitor their periods, and utilize any number of other complicated measurement tools. Living in a patriarchy is grand, y’all.
Ninjababy isn’t just an exploration of the imbalance of expectations of gender, but of a girl out of whack. It would be easy for an American filmmaker to make the story centered on how the baby will bring peace and harmony to the lead as it has become so engrained to consider every pregnancy a miracle when it’s merely biology. Imperfect in its timing or function, but still biological. The fact that Ninjababy takes this approach is more than a little refreshing. It also allows for some truly remarkable moments of introspection, which is where the mixed medium aspect comes in: Rakel frequently talks to her unborn child via a doodle, which she’s dubbed “Ninjababy,” except the drawing isn’t confined to the page she’s created him on. He appears in different places, maneuvers around walls, sneaks in-and-out of a scene unexpectedly. In a way, the dialogue Rakel undertakes with Ninjababy (voiced by Herman Tømmeraas) is like someone engaging with an intrusive thought, trying to calm themselves or work their way around a problem. My favorite thing about this character dynamic is that it allows Rakel to keep her autonomy apart from Ninjababy, rather than presuming the two are one. Ninjababy may rely on Rakel for its health and safety, but there are two separate individuals with different needs and wants. By opting never to conflate the two, Flikke allows Rakel to grow based on her decisions surrounding Ninjababy in the same way best friends Sunny and Lupe of Plan B do in their own respective journey of self. Similarly to those characters, Thorp makes her’s relatable in a way that never feels manufactured, even as it seems Rakel is battling too many fronts. Her mess could be related to neurodivergency, stagnancy due to indecision, or just simple immaturity. Your read of Thorp’s performance becomes personal based on how you interpret her choices (whether you agree with them or not), which is extrodinary, really. Rather than spell things out for you, Thorp and Flikke leave a lot unspoken so that the audience fills in the gaps. One of my favorite moments in the film comes when Mos tells Rakel what he knows about her and Flikke. It primarily focuses on Thorp’s reactions to Mos’s words. Mos may be the one speaking, but his intentions are abundantly clear thanks to Khademi’s beautifully delicate touch in each of his scenes. Flikke knows we understand him, so shifting the focus onto her, and only her, highlights where the focus of Ninjababy is: Rakel, a person not an incubator. Decisions like this make the bulk of the film an engaging watch, even if that abstract nature does hinder it in the end.
Combining pitch perfect comedy and drama, Ninjababy is the unexpected delight of 2021. It manages to balance the uncomfortable with the natural in a way that makes everything feel grounded even at its most heightened interpersonally, resulting in joyful hilarity and devastating sorrow. Life is never just one thing or is simply cut-and-dried, no matter what comics, books, movies, or songs would have you believe. That Ninjababy is able to play in the complicated, dipping into the expected and out again with ease, without managing to lose itself, is truly magnificent. As the parent of two kids, I think it’s worth noting that even when you become a parent on purpose, one never feels truly ready or prepared. The moment you have something figured out, they develop something new, often after a long nap. You are constantly unprepared and outmatched, even with months to feel otherwise. That Fasting, Flikke, Sætre capture this feeling within their story is a mark of something special.
Screening during the 2021 North Bend Film Festival beginning July 15th, 2021.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.