September – along with January, to be fair – is known largely as a cinematic wasteland wherein studios unleash particularly unambitious projects upon the world, the kind of mid-budget films that tend to play it safe narratively and, if they’re lucky, could eke out enough money at the box office to turn the dearth of actual must-sees into a modest profit. When the Bough Breaks is a perfect example of this. With a reported budget of only $10 million, the film hews closely to the formula of its forebears and leverages the presence of two solid actors in the hopes of capitalizing on the post-summer, pre-awards season window.
The film stars Morris Chestnut and Regina Hall as John and Laura Taylor, a married couple who have been dying to conceive their first child. After years of trying and enduring multiple miscarriages, they have decided to go the surrogate route, and when they meet Anna (Jaz Sinclair), the couple think they may have finally found the right person to help them achieve their dream of becoming parents. Naturally, this decision ultimately becomes a mistake, as Anna isn’t exactly who she claims to be.
Although When the Bough Breaks ultimately devolves into a pseudo-erotic thriller (as much as the PG-13 rating will allow), the film does offer some hints early on that it has a more complex tale in mind. Viewers meet Anna’s hot-headed boyfriend (Theo Rossi) – who serves as the story’s biggest wild card early on – and are introduced to a professional rival of John’s (Romany Malco). However, none of these subplots contribute much of anything to the main thrust of the story, which centers on Anna’s fixation on John and the bargaining chip she’s carrying in her womb.
Chestnut does a capable job of playing the devoted husband who’s determined to do the right thing, but Anna’s progression from shy nice girl to seductive maniac has no nuance to it whatsoever, and worse yet, her backstory is only ever provided via an exposition dump by Michael K. Williams (The Wire), who is clearly slumming it here. Aside from the predictable script, the fault for this falls on Sinclair. Though she is certainly lovely enough to pull off the role, she doesn’t demonstrate that the range necessary to carry her character from one extreme to the next. In one scene, she’s all coy and innocent; then she’s inexplicably on the warpath to tear apart John and Laura’s marriage.
So when the insanity finally boils over, there’s little ground for the film to stand on. When the Bough Breaks even hits seemingly every cliche on its way to an underwhelming climax. A dash of Single White Female here, a bit of Fatal Attraction there… The film essentially does nothing to distinguish itself or push the genre anywhere new. This wouldn’t be quite so damning if it was in service of a sound narrative direction, but instead When the Bough Breaks relies on audiences’ ability to turn their brain off and its characters’ inability to act like normal, rational human beings. It’s the kind of film where – if two characters had a simple conversation early on – everything would have gone differently and where the entire plot hinges on mind-numbingly implausible decisions. In other words, prepare to yell at the screen every few minutes.
What makes When the Bough Breaks such a disappointment is that its premise could have been developed into a compelling thriller. Yes, this material may have been covered ad nauseam on networks like Lifetime, but with actors as accomplished as Chestnut (who also produced) and Hall headlining, director Jon Cassar – an executive producer on Fox series 24 – had the tools to create something with more gravitas that bucks expectations. Conversely, he and his team might have gone full B-movie with When the Bough Breaks, embracing the stigma against its premise and leaning into the ludicrous. Instead, the film shifts from one to the other halfway through, offering little for viewers to cling to other than a desire for the end credits to kick in.
A promising setup yields nothing but a cliche story and endless logic gaps in When The Bough Breaks, a film with two lead actors who deserve far better material.