When most people hear the term “coming of age” to describe a film, they might jump to something like The Breakfast Club (1985), Sixteen Candles (1984), Weird Science (1985) or some other John Hughes film. They’re often films of self-exploration at a young age, setting that person on journey to discover who they are as they breach the precipice of adulthood. But Hughes isn’t the only name in coming-of-age films, nor are his mostly virginal films the only one’s worth exploring. Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) may be a comedy, but it deals with young love and teen pregnancy. John Fawcett and Karen Walton’s Ginger Snaps (2000) may not be the first film you think of when talking horror, but it has gotten a solid reputation in the horror community for its use of the coming-of-age tropes. This doesn’t even get into relatively recent release The Edge of Seventeen (2016), which not only explores young love, but how the death of a parent stunts one’s ability to engage with the world. Joining the conversation with its world premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival is Jesse Dvorak and Zita Bai’s Baby, Don’t Cry, a film which uses the medium of cinema to craft a painful fable of a loner seeking connection to free her from a cycle of abuse and isolation. Baby, Don’t Cry is a film rich with ideas, yet it struggles to plant its hooks in its audience in any kind of lasting way.
On the cusp of turning seventeen, Chinese immigrant Baby (Bai) finds herself saddled with the responsibilities of an adult and a high schooler, yet with none of the freedoms that comes along with either. Since the death of her father, her mother’s withdrawn from reality, making Baby both her mother’s caretaker and the sole provider for their home. On top of this, she deals with the constant reminders of how different she is from her classmates, offering her not a single place where she can find some peace. Instead, she opts to make her own through filmmaking; that is, until she meets Fox (Vas Provatakis), a 20-year-old with a penchant for theft and violence. Quickly, the two outsiders finds themselves drawn to each other, hoping that the other will be their ticket out of town and somewhere new.
Baby, Don’t Cry marks Dvorak’s first feature-length directorial debut and Bai’s first feature-length writing credit, but you can see years of experience in it. Some of this comes from the way that the film executes its fable-esque style. Before a word is spoken or a character is seen, the audience is shown the words “A True Story” with the date 2019.10.12 in recognizable VCR OSD Mono font; recognizable to anyone, at least who spent time watching or recording anything on that long-since outdated tech. Just after the words, the image scrambles like the VCR is tracking, trying to pull up the encoded information on the tape. This happens again at the end of the film, serving as a bookend, sure, but driving home that everything we’ve just witnessed is about as real as we, the audience, want to make it. So often, audiences watch a film and take everything that happens as gospel, watching it over and again to decipher clues or re-experience moments. By using this style of bookend, Dvorak is signaling that the truth is what the audience makes of it, that the message received or emotional reaction triggered means more than anything specific contained within the film. That Baby herself feels most comfortable interacting with the world through a camera lens, photographic or video, places the responsibility of interpretation for everything that happens within the narrative in the hands of the audience. Is what we’re seeing what happens? Is it from a specific perspective? Or is it the realization of Baby’s dream to become a filmmaker, using a particularly turbulent and traumatic period as inspiration? Especially as aspects of the film utilize more and more tropes from other genres or the lines of reality blur, questions of the concreteness of the narrative grow more and more.
As fascinating as all of the above is in setting the audience on edge, always keeping them on the outside of whatever is happening, there’s no “inside” to be on, which places the audience at a total disadvantage from truly understanding what’s happening.
If not for the film’s official description, there’s no way to know that Baby is an immigrant. She could’ve been born in the United States and feels like an outsider living in her town. That she would find physical and emotional connection with another outsider makes a great deal of sense, but we don’t know enough about Baby herself in any tangible way for us to understand where the character is coming from or what their perspective is. Certainly, one can imagine or, perhaps, even understand a feeling of “otherness” when someone considers themself a stranger in a strange land, but all we know for certain is that Baby is introverted and has no issue stealing from others. We don’t know if the theft is a compulsion, if it’s because she feels like others can afford what she can’t, or if it’s something else entirely. We just know that when, in their first real exchange, Fox steals from her the camera she stole from someone else, she’s pissed and demands it back. It didn’t belong to either of them, yet they feel entitled to it. One might be able to interpret this interaction as each one possessing a deep need: one of ownership or one of being able to afford to fulfill their dreams, but it’s just as easy to see them as flawed people who see themselves only through their myopic worldview. It certainly does provide some initial fuel for the toxic relationship that develops between the pair, as well as offer tinder to the notion that Fox sees himself as an outlaw, creating his own rules as he goes. The thing is that, outside of a few comments from Fox’s sister Sky (Boni Mata) and a passing comment about him having stage 7 leukemia (which appears to be a joke), we know about as much about Fox as we do Baby. The only real difference being that the further into the film we go, the more the line between reality and fiction blurs.
One thing is for certain, Bai as the writer/lead actor and Dvorak as the director have a clear idea of what they want Baby, Don’t Cry to be. Unfortunately, the problem is that, for me at least, I don’t understand it. Even when focusing solely on the fable elements, viewing everything that happens as the creation of Baby taking control of her own narrative (something which art is incredibly good at helping individuals do), we know so little about her as to understand with any certainty what the message within the fable should be. This, therefore, makes the film truly frustrating. I can see the various parts like pieces in a puzzle box, yet no configuration I can make implies that I see the intended finished product. As such, I found it incredibly difficult to find empathy for the characters and their journeys. I truly don’t know if this is an issue of my not being in the right headspace for the type of story Baby, Don’t Cry tells or if the ideas within the minds of the creative team just didn’t come to life as visualized. Either way, it’s clear that there are interesting ideas at work and more from this duo should not go ignored.
Screening during the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.