In the last 20 minutes, Gemma, determined to find out where her horrible adoptee goes every day and who he meets in his deserted suburban wilderness, slips behind him under a raised section of sidewalk and finds herself giving tumbles. pocket universes of different colors, each inhabited by other sets of desperate and reluctant “parents” to identically dressed black-haired toddlers. some have given up, some have committed suicide, and some just sit at the kitchen table watching. Pulled back into her own dimension, she can only groan as her charge “releases” Tom’s corpse, stuffing it into a body bag and tossing it into the hole he spent obsessively digging his last days. Soon enough, Gemma is “released” too, and her “boy,” now more of a man, puts gas in her car, drives out of the housing complex, and back to the fateful real estate agency, where she takes the posting of her elderly friend, pinning on his name tag and sitting down to wait for an unsuspecting couple to walk through his doors.
what happens is more or less simple, but to understand its purpose and find a very sinister clue, you have to go back to the beginning. at the beginning of the movie, we see images of a nest of tiny little birds, except one of them is not so small. after pushing first an egg and then one of his fellow birds out of the nest and onto the ground, the big baby, who turns out to be a baby cuckoo, gets the full attention of the parents, growing and fattening while barely fitting inside the nest. Many species of cuckoos are brood parasites, which means that the parent cuckoos don’t really care about the baby cuckoos. instead, they surreptitiously lay their egg inside another bird’s nest, and the baby, once hatched, quickly takes control of the family unit. unwitting parents are driven to exhaustion feeding their foster child’s enormous appetite, and often die.
The creatures in the nursery, whatever they are, are similar and use humans to do all the work to oversee their survival. it’s never really explained where they come from, why they’re here, or what their real purpose is beyond simple reproduction, but one gets the feeling that they’ve been around for quite some time, feeding on humanity’s skill at nurturing of the kids. . “That’s right,” Gemma explains to one of her preschool students when she asks about the villainy of the cuckoo’s life cycle.
if you want to dig deeper, director lorcan finnegan used the bones of another project of his to flesh out his newest, which originally premiered at the cannes film festival in 2019. his short film foxes, which, like vivarium, also available on amazon prime, it also features a young couple trapped in a neighborhood of empty houses, identical except this one was inspired by ireland’s “ghost property” epidemic: barren housing developments that were built during the economic boom of the Celtic tiger, and subsequently became vacant in the wake of the global recession of recent years. isolated from society and trapped in their rapidly devaluing home, the couple feel the weight of nature’s intrusion reclaiming the space, roots ripping out the pavement and vines covering the vacant lots, until they must join or be consumed. for her.
there is a folkloric aspect in both stories. Translated directly from the Irish language, the “ghost properties” of foxes become “fairy properties”, and it is easy to imagine the nursery as a kind of modern reversal of the mysterious myth of changelings, the fairies appearing as sinister estate agents who they catch their human victims. within infinitely fractal neighborhoods instead of the hollowed-out mounds of legend. in both, the final message remains the same: there are still some liminal spaces left in this world where humans simply shouldn’t set foot.