Fantasia 2021 Review: BABY, DON'T CRY Plays Rough and Tumble with Youth
Seventeen year old Baby leads a fairly structured life in a leafy, almost rural, Seattle suburb. She cares for her shut-in mother, to the point of weekly sponge-baths, has a domestic cleaning gig with one of her more affluent neighbours, and attends attends high school, if only in the barest performative way. In her rare moments of downtime observes the world through her obsolete VHS video camera, be it dead mice in the garden, cloud formations in the sky, or the ‘mean girls’ and drug dealers carrying on at school.
Introverted and day-dreamy, socially marginalized as one of the towns few Chinese immigrants, and living in borderline poverty, Baby is quietly bursting at the seams; ready to destroy the structures imposed upon her life. It is at this point, on the cusp as it wer, that she meets Fox, a skinny bad-boy with a shaved head and inked crosses under his eyes. Fox, who is perhaps in is early 20s, has been squatting and partying with the local thrash sceen in a dilapidated and graffiti strewn house with his sister. The neighbours seem far enough away that this noise and anarchy and trespassing is tolerated.
Fox is not particularly nice to Baby. He steals from her within minutes of their first meeting on a city bus. But, he pays attention to her. He acknowledges her existence, talks to her, fucks her, and even defends her presence to the wider world. Most crucially, Fox addresses the bullying on the grounds of the high school where scene involving a gun and one of the alpha-blondes is disturbing by any rational measure. To repressed and coiled Baby, it is intoxicating. She’s hooked on living some kind of life in all its messy, dangerous glory, even if her newfound guide is as lost as she is, and often cluelessly mean to her, besides.
Baby, Don’t Cry chronicles Baby’s embrace of her awakening phase of petty criminal adventures, intense sexual melodramas, and vocal confessions of future ambitions (a filmmaker, naturally). This is done through director Jesse Dvorak’s punk lens on this verdant, nay fecund, corner of America. All of this is mediated between a mixture of well lensed, if workaday, indie cinematography, mixed grotty VHS and modern cellphone video. Zita Bai, both wrote the story, and plays Baby. Bia’s performance seems to effortlessly make such an uncomfortable, uncompromising, even unlikable character feel utterly, compellingly real.
The film's wildcard, however, is Korean character actor Helen Sun, who plays Baby’s emotionally damaged single mother. Slightly overweight, and living in a state fluctuating between catatonic depression and moralistic rage, she seen on screen from her daughter’s point of view: Replete with pink sow ears, and often speaking in porcine grunts. Family strife, via judiciously short flashbacks, glimpse at the recent dissolution of marriage. Her working class husband, Baby’s father, simply ‘opted out’ and moved on. Abandonment issues are projected on Baby in a less than positive way that seems to comprise the whole of their domestic existence.
There is a tender sequence where she confesses to her daughter her debilitating fear of everyone leaving. She wants Baby to stay seventeen forever, for her daughter not to ‘turn evil,’ but more importantly, to never, ever, leave. It is selfishly toxic and heartbreakingly raw. Parenting is hard, but obsolescence is the goal, not perpetual dependence. I digress…
Moms presence in the film offers a narrative seed of Baby’s co-dependance with Fox, and a deft lesson in terrible parenting. The parents were so often absent in the independant, counter-culture, and drive-in ‘youth gone wild’ dramas, of the 1960s and 1970s. That rich era of youth-cinema being a kind of kissing-cousin to what Dvorak and Bai have essayed here, which is both a universal take on teenage confusion, but also specific and modern.
The visual portrayal of mom as a pig is resides somewhere on the spectrum on a cinematic tradition of magical realism. But along a portentous final shot of Fox, this is almost the antithesis of how magical realism is typically used. The result is an innovative coming-of-age drama leavened with immigrant struggle and poverty, Baby, Don't Cry, is less of a warning, or even a wake-up call, and more of a grungy mirror. It is bloody, and awkward, discomfortingly obsessive, and exceptionally alive.
Baby, Don't Cry
- Jesse Dvorak
- Zita Bai
- Boni Mata
- Zita Bai
- Blakely Olson
- Troy Musil