Humans are born with an irrepressible desire to know where they come from, so much so that their heritage often becomes a part of their identity. Someone might have their mother’s nose, their father’s drinking habit, the exact same shade of hair as their cousin. And now that we have 23 and Me and Ancestry.com, people are more interested than ever in their genealogical links. Great news for those who longed for a family connection, bad news for doctors like Quincy Fortier in Baby God, who never imagined that their secrets might get out.
For decades, Dr. Quincy Fortier treated female patients in Nevada and, whenever he saw fit, secretly used his own sperm to impregnate many of his patients. No doubt he believed he would never be caught, never imagined a world in which everyday people would have access to genetic testing that would identify him as the father. But sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. First there were just a few puzzled individuals wondering who this stranger on their family tree was, then more and more descendants were discovered and, by communicating with one another, uncovered the awful truth. To this day, it’s impossible to know how widely his genetic legacy extends.
For his newfound biological children, this discovery elicited understandably extreme reactions. Many dealt with an identity crisis, in learning that the men they had always assumed to be their biological fathers were not actually related to them. They had this whole other genetic background they knew nothing about. There’s also an undercurrent of shame, the revulsion of being somehow linked to such a repugnant individual. And of course, they all had so many questions, being in uncharted waters. What should their relationship be to one another? Are they siblings, or something less than? How much do they want to know about their biological father and his actual family? And how on earth do they broach this subject with their parents? For that matter, should they?
The most glaring problem of Baby God is that, for the most part, it’s unable to capture these reactions in real time. Because it’s reporting on these individuals months or even years after they first learned of their true patrilineal heritage, there’s a disappointing lack of drama. It takes what is an inherently fascinating story of deception and hubris, and takes the wind right out of its sails. All we’re getting is tepid commentary on a family crisis that most of the figures in the film have already come to terms with. Furthermore, the directing style from Hannah Olson does little to bring any excitement to the proceedings. She utilizes the same straightforward interview techniques over and over again, getting little tidbits of each individual’s story but rarely taking the time to explore their situations in any real depth.
It flits from descendant to descendant, robbing them of any real emotional impact. Then at one point it changes gears to delve into the charges of sexual abuse made against Fortier by his children, which would be undeniably compelling material, except that it’s so clumsily integrated into the larger narrative that it comes across as confusing more than anything else. It’s clear that Olson found a horrifyingly engaging story, but didn’t know what to do with it, or what angle to take.
Somewhere in Baby God there’s a great piece about women who have had their trust, their very bodies, violated by a doctor who decided to exert unimaginable control over their lives. There’s a story about children grappling with who they really are, knowing that their biological father was a monster. And there’s a fascinating exploration of sexual abuse in the medical community, where a society that puts a great deal of faith in doctors can be blind to the exploitation and perversion of that trust.
But Baby God only interacts with these topics on the most surface level, introducing them and then just as quickly casting them aside. The result is a frustrating documentary that fails to capitalize on its incredibly engrossing subject, leaving far more stones unturned than it actually attempts to address.