I have never been pregnant and unable to abort but I think if I were, Ninjababy would be the movie I would want to see. I can’t think of a better recommendation for a movie in this day and age, honestly. This 2021 low-budget Norwegian mesterverk—that’s masterpiece in Norwegian—is about a 23-year-old directionless university dropout, Rakel (Kristine Thorp), who discovers she is six and a half months pregnant (yes, you read that right), which means she is unable to get an abortion even though she really really really fucking wants one. How did this happen? Well, according to the doctor, it is rare but not everyone shows the same way (as Rakel’s romantic interest helpfully notes, people sometimes have babies in toilets for this reason). That means she has to spend the next couple of months wrestling with her guilt—literalized in the form of an animated “ninjababy” (or “ninyabébé” in Thorp’s adorable accent) that she has illustrated—and what to do after the birth, while juggling the giant-dicked man (“Dick Jesus” played with aplomb by Arthur Berning) who impregnated her and the aikido-teaching RPG fantasy dude (Nader Khademi’s cuddly “Aikido-Mos”) she’s falling for.
This is one of those movies where the second I finished watching it, I texted almost everyone I know telling them to see it. I found it surfing around Apple TV, you know where you scroll through the “standout discoveries” you can rent or whatever? I nearly passed over the title for obvious reasons, but something about the image—a girl lying in bed scribbling in her notebook, her eyes on a cartoon baby with masked eyes hanging out next to her—gave it a sort of American Splendor feel. Ninjababy is directed by Yngvild Sve Flikke of Women in Oversized Men’s Shirts fame (sadly I could not find this, her first feature, in English) and written by Johan Fasting, creator of Heimebane (translated as Home Ground, but in my mind it’s better as Home Game), the show in which a woman is named manager of a men’s soccer team. Flikke worked on the series and liked the way Fasting wrote “restless” dialogue and you could see it in the careerist coach’s constant confrontation with her own carelessness in that series. Ninajababy is loosely based on two graphic novels—Fallteknikk (The Art of Falling) and Møkkajentene (Grubby Girls)—by Inga Saetre, who is also responsible for the illustrations in the film.
I don’t know how else to describe Ninjababy’s hold over me except to say that it disarms you with a kind of modest magic. Rakel lives in what you could mistake for a squat if you didn’t know how badly twentysomethings can live. The house is sparsely decorated with haphazard magazine cut outs, the kind of place that has homemade hummus in the fridge and liver paté discarded under the bed. Rakel’s room in particular is a chaotic mess of drawings—she doesn’t call herself an illustrator, but it becomes clear that’s what she is. (Thorp is also an illustrator and contributed most of the art in the room and is the reason her character holds a pen properly.) Her clothing, a mish mash of oversized comfortable looking stuff (apparently it was all actually quite heavy, which changed the actress’s bearing to the moderate shambles you see), her greasy hair (thanks to an entire bottle of olive oil, according to Thorp), and her attitude all give off an air of being cheerfully broke (a specific air I have noticed in Scandinavia-type places, where the social safety net allows for it). Thorp is perfection in her first major role, able to subtly express what is going through her mind in a way that was common among the best indie actors of yore, who thrived when it was less impossible to make a quiet movie around them to make space for it. Speaking of space, there appears to have been a concerted effort to compose a number of frames in Ninjababy with the kind of white space that recalls individual comic book panels, which also makes room for: drawings!
The animation in Ninjababy is so delicately employed that a subtle spray of dashes—such as the tiny crackle that appears over Rakel’s heart when Aikido-Mos says he likes her (tragically almost obscured by the subtitles in the English version)—is like a bit of enchantment in otherwise fairly kitchen sink surroundings. Flikke smartly consulted with Sara Gunnarsdottir, the Icelandic animator on The Diary of a Teenage Girl—in which illustrations are also melded into the quotidian, though slightly more elaborately and colorfully—who told her the secret was to put the animator in the room with the editor (here that’s Karen Gravas). That means little sprinkles here and there—a sudden storm of raindrops over a hospital bed, a growing parade of scribbled out faces—conjure some unexpectedly poignant magic realism.
Which is not to say Ninjababy isn’t funny—no joke, it includes an animated sequence in which the vociferous fetus tries (and fails) to dodge a blast of Dick Jesus juice. This is not Never Rarely Sometimes Always, it’s not even Obvious Child, this is an indie film about an unwanted pregnancy from a country where abortion has been legal since 1978. “I didn’t want a scene where Rakel is thinking, ‘Should I have an abortion or not?’” Flikke told Dazed & Confused. “The character would have an abortion, without a question. These rights are so important for women’s liberation.” (Tell that to . . . everyone.) While pregnant Norwegians can abort up to 12 weeks—past that date a board has to give approval—in June the local government called a commission to look into extending the period of requested abortions to 18 weeks, which up until now has only been allowed under particular circumstances, such as rape or risk to the child. Likely because of her country’s progressive stance on reproductive health, not to mention Flikke’s own politics—she has children but is aggressively pro-choice—the notion that Rakel could be pregnant is not treated like the end of the world, but instead with an approach of casual responsibility. Hearing she hasn’t had her period in six months—in addition to her heightened smell, her changing body and appetites—Rakel’s roommate (Tora Christine Dietrichson) brings her some tests she already had stashed in her room. And on her way to the doctor after the positive results, Rakel announces to a cabbie she is going to get an abortion but only has $10. Her joviality ends abruptly, however, when she finds out she is in fact 26 weeks pregnant—the stage at which the baby is viable outside the womb, meaning abortion is illegal. “I demand an abortion right away!” Rakel shouts in response. “Take those fucking pills and stuff them up the pill hole!”
Suddenly saddled with what she characterizes as a “sneaky ninjababy who thinks it can chill for nine months and then sneak out,” Rakel conceives a cartoon version—the nude little dude with a mask—who does not actually appear in Saetre’s original graphic novel. Screenwriter Fasting came up with the ninjababy as a sort of alter ego to animate Rakel’s concerns. Flikke calls it “emotional animation,” which she also uses for comedy, hence Dick Jesus’s infamous package turning into a boa constrictor and Ninjababy’s repeated calls to be adopted by Angelina Jolie (not to mention the fetal splooge scene). By the same token, the film flips various rom-com tropes on their heads, such as the usual bullet point list by the lover spelled out to win over the girl employed here to demonstrate to Rakel how much more she is than her pregnancy.
From the start, Ninjababy was designed not to have the traditional narrative arc of the protagonist having a major realization and changing dramatically. “We humans don’t know what we want all the time, this is a story that has ambivalence,” Flikke told Screen Daily. “It’s not like in the movies when the protagonist always has a goal. She really doesn’t change that much throughout this movie.” If anyone changes it’s Dick Jesus, who goes from seemingly not giving much of a shit about the pregnancy to wanting he and Rakel to bring up the baby once it’s born. “Fucking congrats to you,” she tells the man who may as well be the pregnant one for the way he’s taking ownership. Which is not to say Rakel doesn’t. Another subversion in Ninjababy has the mother concerned about the baby without actually wanting it. Rakel alternately fears her child’s adopted parents will be Nazi pedophiles and that they will be too rich. In between, Ninjababy adds his opposing view—rich people have the advantage of making fresh sour bread every morning, apparently—but despite the constant nagging feeling of uncertainty, this isn’t one of countless movies where an unwanted pregnancy becomes wanted the second the mother sees the baby. Ninjababy becomes real. And Rackel remains the same.”I have zero desire to be a mom,” she says, her baby in a stroller next to her. “I can look at her, hold her, and still think . . . ‘Dammit, I don’t want kids.’”
The final scene of Ninjababy has Dick Jesus and the now-toddler in a field behind his family farmhouse, playing behind a billowing clothing line, when Rackel drives up with the graphic novel she has written (another subversion: she as the long lost paternal figure showing up, work in tow). And even here there is ambiguity, when Rackel bends down to hand her child her book (Ninjababy) and watches daughter and dad pore over it with a sad smile. As Thorp herself told Variety, “She has made her choice that she doesn’t want [the baby]. But she’s not inhuman so of course she has all these feelings for her child . . . when it’s such a big choice you’re making, of course there will always be doubt.”