Content warning: The following story contains text descriptions of pregnancy loss.
We live in a world that doesn't believe women when we say we're experiencing pain — whether it's chronic physical pain or psychological distress. The patriarchal powers that be have always dismissed us, so much so that it has seeped into our healthcare systems. The issue goes way beyond not being believed: the pain gap has deadly consequences, and America is contending with a maternal healthcare crisis worse than in any other developed country.
And while our culture is finally acknowledging this reality, the stigma around these issues is still very real — perhaps most glaringly when it comes to pregnancy loss. Our culture still does not openly discuss the grief and severe psychological impacts miscarriages and stillbirths can have on women. In writer and director Lori Evans Taylor's new supernatural thriller, "Bed Rest," released on Tubi on Dec. 7, actor Melissa Barrera artfully portrays the horrifyingly haunting effects a traumatic pregnancy loss can have on a mother.
In the film, Barrera plays Julie Rivers, a young woman who in the past experienced a heartbreaking stillbirth that resulted in a postpartum psychosis diagnosis and a six-week admission to a mental rehabilitation facility. But after years of suffering, Rivers is pregnant again and moving into a new home with her husband, Daniel. She's trying to embrace new beginnings. But then she accidentally slips down a flight of stairs and is ordered to abide by eight weeks of mandatory bed rest. This restrictive state of being slowly starts to trigger thoughts about her previous pregnancy loss — and has those around her deeply concerned about her mental health.
For most of the psychological thriller, viewers might be unsure whether Julie is actually experiencing what she says she's experiencing — including being tormented by her deceased son as well as another woman who died by suicide after her child died in an accident. Are these mystical components real, or are they just real in Julie's traumatized mind? Barrera confirms it's both.
"When I read [the script], I was like, this is an important message and it also feels like a great way into it because [of] its genre," Barrera tells POPSUGAR. "It felt very different from other thriller or horror movies I've read. It felt like it had a deeper message — an important one. And that's what I always look for in projects."
If you've seen Barrera's most recent projects, you've probably noticed a common thread. The actor — whose career has taken off since she landed the role of Lyn in Starz's "Vida" and then her breakout Hollywood role as Vanessa in Lin-Manuel Miranda's film adaptation of "In the Heights" — has a knack for developing complex characters. It's undeniably one of her greatest strengths as an actress and one that makes it easy to connect with anyone she plays.
Her role as Julie is almost reminiscent of her character Chama in the indie film "All the World Is Sleeping" and Liv in the Netflix series "Keep Breathing," which was released in August. In all these projects, the protagonist faces major adversity while fighting to overcome what might seem like debilitating trauma that's impossible to escape. And yet the women always manage to break out of it in the end.
It's clear in all the roles that Barrera has a craft for deeply diving into the trauma of a character — taking it in almost as her own — and then finding a way to transform it into believable triumph on screen. In "Bed Rest," it's easy to empathize with Julie's character and root for her survival and success until the very end. That's all Barrera. That's what she does best. In all her films, she makes you feel that the character she's playing is actually her.
"I'm not an actor that can be like, this is a completely separate person [from myself]," she explains. "I can't. Because the thing that leads me into a character is always how we're similar first and then all the things that are different — that are not like me."
Barrera continues: "One of the characters in the movie — Delmy — says, 'Women have been carrying the burden of grief for many years,' and it's so true, and we don't talk about it. It's taboo, and we're supposed to just get up and move on, and that's not easy." That's partly why Barrera is "so proud" of the film: "I'm proud of how it turned out, but also because I feel like a lot of women — more women than we want to admit — have gone through something like this." Indeed, 10 to 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, and about one in 160 births is a stillbirth, which occurs when a baby dies at or after 28 weeks.
In the end, Julie not only survives but finally lets go of the tormenting pain from her first child's death in order to be there for her daughter, who is born at the very end of the film. It's a hopeful ending that Barrera felt women viewers deserve.
"I personally think that it needed to have that kind of happier closure, because we kind of need to be able to breathe at the end."
"I personally think that it needed to have that kind of happier closure, because we kind of need to be able to breathe at the end," she says. "Because it was hard to be with her all that time — and women have such a hard time with this that having her, in the end, triumphant and actually being able to continue with her life and be happy is so much more hopeful and is the message that I wanted for women that have gone through this and are maybe going through this: 'She conquered that, and that means that I can, too. I can get my life back.'"
By the end of the film, we also learn that the haunted spirits Julie is seeing and communicating with are actually present in the house — not just in her head. Her husband, played by Guy Burnet, and her nurse aide Delmy, played by Edie Inksetter, both witness them. Despite the fact that what Julie experiences is also tied to her history of postpartum psychosis, Barrera was grateful for an opportunity for her character to finally be believed.
"It's so relevant in society — women are not believed when we say something . . . I wanted to break that pattern, and I wanted the ending to be very [clear that] she's been right this whole time, and I wanted the other characters to acknowledge it."
"It was really important to me because Delmy and Daniel also doubted her the whole time . . . It's this acknowledgment of believing women," she says. "It's so relevant in society — women are not believed when we say something . . . I wanted to break that pattern, and I wanted the ending to be very [clear that] she's been right this whole time, and I wanted the other characters to acknowledge it."
The film touches on another aspect of not being believed: while there are some spiritual practices that acknowledge connecting with the deceased as reality, Western culture and medicine do not. And yet Julie's reality was true.
Barrera believes there's a fine line between someone who has an open channel and the gift of being able to see and communicate with spirits and someone with a mental disorder. "I think the difference to me is in the feeling of those encounters. I think [for] a lot of people that have spiritual encounters, after someone passes or that have that open channel, it's healing," she says. "It feels like you're getting some sort of closure. And it doesn't feel bad. I think it has a feeling of uplifting."
Barrera, who recently read "Signs: The Secret Language of the Universe" by Laura Lynne Jackson, believes she experienced a type of spiritual encounter with her grandmother after she passed this summer. She shares that when her grandma was alive, she used to collect souvenirs of frogs that she would decorate her entire house with for good luck. "When she passed, there was a frog that would come to the front door every night. Every night," Barrera says. "And I never had a frog come to my house. I've never seen a frog. All a sudden, there's a frog on my front doormat every night — the same frog is coming back. I was like, there's no way to ignore this. This is clearly my grandma telling me that she's OK. Telling me that she's looking for me."
"Bed Rest" has a creative way of touching on all these possibilities. But in the end, it's really about the real-life horror one experiences after a pregnancy loss — how it can haunt you and even break you, but there's always the possibility of coming out on the other side. There's always the possibility of overcoming even the hardest pain to start a new chapter. There is always hope.