‘Babygirl’ Too Cultured For Own Good
With the Tribeca Film Festival in full swing, dozens of new and veteran filmmakers are hoping to make an impact on audiences and potential buyers/distributors. Using laughably small budgets, these artists cannot rely on special effects or awe-invoking sets to carry their films. No, they must do something rarely found in mainstream filmmaking these days: craft an authentic and original visual story.
Unfortunately for these filmmakers, most ideas have already been brought to life and a simple re-visioning of a familiar tale, no matter how heartfelt it is, will never receive the acclaim something truly original would, unless your name happens to be James Cameron.
Such an example of familiar filmmaking in this year’s competition is the feature film Babygirl; a typical, run-of-the-mill family drama based off true events. Written and directed by the Irish-native Macdara Vallely, the idea came to him after witnessing an awkwardly, flirtatious conversation between a mother, daughter, and a stranger on a New York City subway ride one day, who blatantly — and to the horror of the young woman — tried to hit on both of them. As the three individuals left the train together that day, it left Vallely pondering the question, “What happens next?” What developed in response is an indie-drama featuring a daughter’s struggle to grow-up in a NYC household run by an adult who never emotionally grew-up.
Life isn’t easy for 16-year-old Lena (played by screen newcomer Yainis Ynoa). When she isn’t at school or working as a grocery clerk in a beat-down store in the ghetto, the Nuyorican girl is babysitting her baby half-brother while her mom (Rosa Arredondo) is out on a date with the new guy she met on the train. Her only escape comes when she and her best friend Daishan (Gleendilys Inoa) take turns pushing her brother’s stroller around town, gossiping about boys they like and the men they hate. But even Daishan has little sympathy for Lena when it comes to her mother’s neglectful nature, saying, “Your mom is a slut, OK? Deal with it.”
When Lucy’s relationship with “guy on the train,” Victor (Flaco Navaja), starts to become more serious, Lena further questions this smooth-talking, Marc Anthony look-a-like’s intentions. With her mother naively content with her life, which is full of searching for constant approval, Lena tries to talk to Victor on behalf of the family’s sake. But in attempting to approach the matter as an adult, Lena quickly realizes how young she still is when dealing with situations and feelings she doesn’t fully understand.
Undoubtedly, Babygirl is a very emotional and heart-wrenching experience. In his first film, Peacefire, which was based off an award-winning play that he also penned, Vallely approached a similar tale about the loss of innocence with the dark humor found in the recklessness of young lawbreakers. With this sophomore effort, he approaches the subject in a much more serious light, attempting to show the gritty reality of a family in distress.
Deftly handling the pacing of the dramatic build-up, he never lets the characters feel stereotyped. Contrasting the dark, grainy interior shots found in the family’s apartment against the vibrant, bustling Bronx street scenery, Vallely’s cinematography expertly matches the emotions of its characters at different times throughout the movie. Though entirely shot on 35mm film, one could easily be fooled, as the clarity and crispness of each frame could effortlessly pass for digital.
At a short 77-minute run time, some characters, especially Lucy, are not fleshed out as much as one would like, but everything that should be touched on in the plot, seems to be. It is in the plot though, where the film is ultimately flawed.
In this case, the story seems to be a thorough conglomerate of plot points taken from multiple dissimilar films. These movies aren’t award winners either. The idea of a self-centered mother always searching for a new guy was highlighted by Jenny McCarthy in the 2004 teenage-revenge comedy John Tucker Must Die. The notion that the new father figure isn’t all he is cracked up to be, delighted horror fans 25-years ago in the original Stepfather. Most recently, the act of a young-girl acting more mature than she really is by putting herself in an awkward position was devastatingly portrayed in last year’s drama Trust. And to reiterate all of this commonality, the trailer for the new mainstream Eva Mendes film, Girl in Progress, looks to be a carbon copy of what the low-budget Babygirl is.
Even if getting over this regrettable hump is impossible, the film makes the best with what it’s given. Utilizing a great blend of upbeat-pop and slow-tempo Mexican music with tunes like “Amor Y Felicidad” and “El Chacal,” written and performed by José Conde, as well as the constant switch between English and Spanish dialogue, the Latino vibe shines through.
In her first role, Ynoa does a commendable job in capturing both a sense of innocence and one of a semi-independent young woman. When with her friends, she appears to be a normal, Latino girl with long brown hair and a sweet smile. On the other hand, in a dress and all dolled up, Ynoa’s features eerily resemble her mother’s naturally, stunning beauty that attracts the Victors of the world. Beyond Ynoa though, it is Arredondo’s veteran status that stands out amongst a cast of younglings. Her emotional instability brings her character empathy, but her blatant ignorance to her family’s well-being ultimately makes her one of the film’s main villains. So, while the overall message of the film is meant to empower women, its female characters are ironically portrayed as quite weak.
In a sea of standout indie films, Babygirl looks to get lost in the Tribeca madness. If nothing else, the film stands as promise for a future for its cast. As for Vallely, he should continue to master his storytelling from behind the camera while others work on that pesky screenplay.
Rating: 2 out of 4