Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival
When the stylish and striking comics-and-salsa opening credit sequence of Macdara Vallely's Babygirl faded and the film proper began, this viewer sat up with a jolt: is that 16mm film? In a new indie? Believe it, kids; Babygirl was shot on good, old-fashioned, grainy Super 16, and it gives the picture a defining, throwback look, recalling earlier low-budget, coming-of-age New York movies like Straight Out of Brooklyn and Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. Like those films, it is not immune to the temptations of occasional broadness or cliché. But it has an authenticity and reality that's admirable, and increasingly rare.
Lena (Yainis Ynoa) lives in the Bronx with her single mom Lucy (Rosa Arredondo) and her baby half-brother. Going on 16, having learned the lessons from her mami, she's clinging hard to her virginity, though her best friend Daishan (Gleendilys Inoa) is pushing her, and new kid Xavier (Joshua Rivera) seems interested. But those concerns become secondary when her mother takes up with twentysomething Victor (Flaco Navaja). Lena is cynical about his intentions, and not without reason; he gives her a nod and a wink before talking to her mother, and seems creepily interested in her when they share the occasional moment away from Lucy. To rescue her mom from a guy who is certainly bad news, Lena fakes like she shares his interest, and promises him a date once he's free and available.
Her plan seems simple, but the nuances of the writing and the subtle shadings of Ynoa's performance muddy her intentions: what exactly is she up to? Is it entirely an act? In asking those questions, and burrowing into the situation more deeply and perceptively than the average coming-of-age story, writer/director Vallely transcends the normally simplistic emotions and motivations of the genre. Sometimes, as he seems to understand, people--girls, boys, young, old--make mistakes, bad ones, errors that seem utterly inexplicable and beyond the pale. But Vallely doesn't judge Lena, and doesn't try to explain her; he just wants to understand her.
Some of these scenes are so keenly felt and beautifully done, they may well stir up your own memories; the "date" scene is just plain nerve-wracking, we're so invested in Lena's innocence and want so desperately for her to do the right thing, and she perfectly nails the moment of sheer terror (at that age--or any, really) before the first kiss with someone you like. As savvy as Vallely's writing is, he just plain struck gold with Ynoa, a young actress of astonishing gifts. She captures the inner tension and conflict, the push-pull of doing what's right and doing what feels right, with a sensitivity and strength that an actress twice her age would be proud of. It is not just the tale of her growing up, but of her hardening up, and the defeated flatness in her delivery of the line "you're hurting me" conveys tremendous but subtle power.
The supporting performances don't all equal hers--Arredondo particularly overplays her early scenes, but her emotional volume is just right for the later crescendos--there's a couple too many music montages, and for all his skill, Vallely can't always distract us from the familiar ring of some of his dialogue and situations. Those lapses aside, this modest film is a real gift; Babygirl is a little rough around the edges, but it is honest, and heartfelt, and true.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.