Writer-director John Sayles has the ability to take the most cliché-riddled formula and -- voila! -- skirt cliché. Such is the redemptive power of full-blooded characterization and a keen understanding that people are nothing if not especially unpredictable. The overdue DVD release of Sayles' third (and only studio) feature, 1983's Baby Its You, presents a modest story of young love, but it nicely illustrates the filmmaker's knack for wringing genuine complexity from what otherwise could be a tired exercise in genre.
In this case, Sayles finds pathos in the pampered-girl-meets-boy-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks scenario. Set in Trenton, New Jersey, during the mid-1960s, Baby It's You centers on Jill Rosen (Rosanna Arquette), a sensible girl who comes from a middle-class Jewish home and harbors dreams of being a stage actress. But then she falls for a handsome Italian-American rogue who calls himself the Sheik (Vincent Spano), and suddenly her family and friends worry about Jill's future.
It's a star-crossed couple, to be sure. She's a good student; he's a two-bit hoodlum who nominally attends high school. She likes the Supremes; he's an acolyte of Frank Sinatra. But opposites attract, as they saying goes, and Jill and Sheik embark on a stormy relationship.
That setup has the potential for hackneyed formula, but Sayles resists predictable routes. A Hoboken native, he knows these fictitious Jerseyites and has real affection for them. Jill is complicated. She is sympathetic but self-involved and a bit of a user. Similarly, Sayles doesn't shy away from Sheik's violent streak and criminal activities -- the guy commits armed robbery -- but he imbues the character with vulnerability. The Sheik is desperate not to wind up like his irascible father, a blue-collar working stiff, but the young man lacks fortitude and direction. For him, Jill Rosen represents possible salvation.
Life intrudes, however, and the two drift apart after high school. Jill goes to Sarah Lawrence College to pursue acting. Sheik, on the lam after a botched burglary, hightails it to Miami Beach and a sad career lip-synching Sinatra tunes. Sayles deftly nudges our sympathies from one character to the other.
Baby It's You lets his characters' divergent paths shape the narrative. The resulting pace and tone might be too leisurely for some viewers; the movie does lose some momentum somewhere in the second act with peripheral characters tending to blur. Nevertheless, most of Baby It's You is engrossing, replete with smart dialogue and a strong sense of place.
And in one of her first big-screen appearances, then-23-year-old Rosanna Arquette demonstrates considerable acting chops and precise comic timing. Vincent Spano does a fine job as Sheik, but Arquette's Jill Rosen holds the film together. Other cast members include a baby-faced Matthew Modine making his film debut. Robert Downey Jr. is in the credits, too, but it must have been a blink-and-you'll-miss it role.
Also noteworthy is the picture's intrepid use of rock 'n' roll. Sayles effectively interweaves music from the time period -- Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, the Trashmen, Ben E. King and the Ronettes (whose "Baby, It's You" provides the movie's title) -- but he is sparing enough to keep things from lapsing into kitschy nostalgia.
There are some interesting musical anomalies, too. The Sheik's style and manner inspire Sayles to tap some terrific Bruce Springsteen tracks. "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City" plays when Sheik first makes a play for Jill in the school cafeteria, while "She's the One" and "Adam Raised a Cain" are used prominently later in the picture. The time frame for The Boss' songs might be all wrong, but they possess an emotional integrity and Jersey working-class ethos that perfectly underscores the characters' predicaments.
Presented in widescreen 1.78:1 and enhanced for 16x9 television screens, the DVD picture is serviceable quality but unremarkable. There is minor grain in several scenes, while portions of the film seem inordinately dark.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 is perfunctory, if flat. The sound is clear and consistent, with no distortion or drop-out. No foreign-language tracks or subtitles are available.
Legend Films gives the flick shoddy treatment with not a scintilla of supplemental material. A commentary or retrospective would've been nice. After all, this is a John Sayles picture. Surely, the DVD producers could have mustered up something.
Low-key but involving, Baby It's You only loses its footing as it closes in on the third act. It's a forgivable sin, however, as writer-director John Sayles delivers compelling characters and an evocative feeling for New Jersey in the Sixties. The movie's barebones treatment on DVD is shameful, but at least cinephiles finally have a chance to acquaint themselves (or reacquaint themselves, as the case might be) with this overlooked Sayles gem.