The ultimate psychological debate, nature versus nurture, has stumped countless great minds. In Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais' comic family drama Birthmarked, ultra-dedicated scientists Catherine (Toni Collette) and Ben (Matthew Goode) take on this challenge and embark on the kind of child-rearing experiment you might imagine in a college psych class. The couple attempt to raise three kids against their so-called genetic nature: Their biological son (Jordan Poole) will become an artist, their adopted son (Anton Gillis-Adelman) will eschew his parents' violence for pacifism and their adopted daughter (Megan O'Kelly) will channel her inner Einstein.
Live-in child psychologist (Andreas Apergis) cares for the brood, tracks progress and provides some laughs. The quintet make for an idiosyncratic family unit, secluded from society in an idyllic lakeside home until they're forced to show some results. (Kudos to production designer Emmanuel Frechette and costume designer Judy Jonker for crafting the film's realistic retro look.)
Hoss-Desmarais coaxes stellar performances out of the kids, whose headstrong characters endure conditioning like mouse murder and forced interpretive dance. Marc Tulin's script has some trouble blending the story's quirkier moments with serious questions: What are the ethics of pushing three little guinea pigs toward manufactured outcomes? What are the motivations of a flashy financier (Michael Smiley) bankrolling this grand social experiment? And, most important, how fucked up are these kids going to be? Hoss-Desmarais helps this unconventional family become an imperfect tribe, but Birthmarked proves both heartfelt and frustrating, perhaps a little like parenthood itself.