In calmer, saner times, Delicate State might have come across as an overly strained metaphor for the personal upheaval having a baby brings to a couple’s relationship and life together. In our deeply divided, increasingly unstable era, it is barely speculative, possibly even terrifyingly prescient, and hits with an unexpected wallop.
This is the video diary of Los Angeles couple Paula, a children’s book author, and Charlie, a numismatist and coin-shop owner, as they prepare to welcome their first child, from the moment they discover she is pregnant. Early on, their diary is sweet, simple slice-of-parenting-life stuff, as when he brings home a flat-pack changing table they are both instantly excited to build; sometimes they speak directly into the camera, addressing their child in the future, sharing their hopes and dreams for him or her.
But what will that future be? For just outside their happy cocoon, the world is slowly beginning to fall apart. They barely notice at first, unless it is an inconvenience to them, as with a massive street protest that causes the cancellation of an important event they were to attend, another that sees police cordons spring up around the city. But before long, the civil turmoil and, later, violent chaos in the world beyond them becomes impossible to ignore, or avoid.
Today, on the first anniversary of the attack on the US Capitol in Washington DC, it feels like our understanding of the instant at which this movie switches from near-documentary to scarcely extrapolated fiction could change in a flash.
Conceived — pun intended — in 2015 by actor and filmmaker Paula Rhodes (Lions for Lambs) as a way to keep creatively busy during her actual pregnancy, Delicate State is a marvel of ultra-low-budget storytelling. Rhodes, making her feature debut as writer and director, and her real-life partner, Charlie Bodin (The Divergent Series: Insurgent, Transformers), are the main cast and the entire crew here, playing alt-versions of themselves while they shoot all the footage themselves. Rhodes was inspired, more than half a decade ago now, by the unsettled, unsettling tone of the zeitgeist back then, but of course it’s all much, much worse now. Rhodes did not need to stage any unrest to give her film the sense of the world beyond its central couple: she and Bodin were able to film at actual protests.
But this is not a politically partisan film, and we never see the substance of those protests. It’s not even until quite close to the end that we even get a hint of which, if any, ideological way “Paula” and “Charlie” might lean. Because the whys of what is happening matter less than the fact that it’s happening at all. Delicate State is very much a woman’s — a comparatively privileged white woman’s — perspective on war, one that we don’t often see… because it has not been a thing, certainly not recently on American soil. Women all over the world, and women of color in the US, have had to raise families under the tenuous situations, amidst trying societal disruption and disorder… and now such precariousness in everyday life appears to be coming for those of us who had been sheltered from it previously. This is a panic-stricken acknowledgment of this new reality.