FANTASIA21 REVIEW: Baby, Don’t Cry [2021]

Rating: 5 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 90 minutes
    Release Date: 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Monday Pictures
    Director(s): Jesse Dvorak
    Writer(s): Zita Bai

You still have a chance.

Baby (Zita Bai) is a seventeen-year-old Chinese immigrant surviving on the fringes of her community. She’s a voyeur—always with camera on to capture the dialogue and actions of others so that she can better mimic how it is that she should act to “fit in.” That she also photographs animal carcasses and death with excitement might make that sort of assimilation tough, but she’s not really interested in those that would dismiss such a thing without context. It’s not until she meets Fox (Vas Provatakis) that Baby finally sees someone worth the effort to let the full breadth of her eccentricity become visible. He’s a drug dealer who parties hard with zero respect for anyone around him that’s found himself enamored by her singular mystique.

Director Jesse Dvorak says that he wanted to bring his coming-of-age filmmaking sensibilities to this unique immigrant experience as written by Bai herself. And that goal does come to fruition in many of the ways you’d expect courtesy of encounters with bullies, the exposure of a very volatile home life (with Helen Sun as her mother), and the toxic love that binds Baby to Fox despite the inevitable pain its perpetual cycle of psychological violence manifests. Baby, Don’t Cry is nothing if not a series of universally resonant vignettes tied together by wild shifts in tone and emotion. One second Baby is the happiest she’s ever been and the next it’s as though the ground opened to swallow her whole. Our hope as viewers is thus discovering purpose.

I’m personally at a loss where that discovery is concerned because it’s difficult to see any beyond the superficial notion that Baby is caught in a desperate scenario she cannot escape from. I say superficial because every time it seems like we’re going to learn something deeper about what’s happening, Dvorak pulls us away to a distraction that only ends up destroying the momentum he had built. This dance eventually gets so convoluted that I’m not sure what was real at all. If I were to guess, everything after Baby discovers the camera she just stole was quickly stolen away (by Fox) is a figment of her imagination. The good, bad, weird, etc. Everything. Yet, while believing that helps certain things make more sense, it also ruins others.

Because Baby does reenter the “real world” amidst her playdates with Fox and the danger, sex, and anarchy he provides. She returns to her job as a housecleaner for a vapid, rich woman. She returns home where there’s a fifty-fifty chance her mother is catatonic and in need of a sponge bath or ready to physically assault her for daring to leave like her father. How much of that is real, though, when Baby’s Mom is shown with pig ears making pig sounds? How much of the flashbacks (which come courtesy of full-frame digital recordings and widescreen memories) are real once format and content come at odds with each other? Did Dad leave or die? Does this family have fairy tale genetics or is it all a metaphor?

The fact we can never tell is probably the film’s strongest aspect because it shows Bai and Dvorak’s desire to create without any handholding. This is a personal film created from a place of pain, excitement, and uncertainty that exudes all those things even if we have no idea what’s happening narratively. One could say we don’t need to know. As long as we get the sense of isolation that comes with being an “other,” we have absorbed that which matters most. That Baby is just as prone to react with her own violence (provoked or not) therefore works to show us that we’re all flawed humans yearning for answers in listless existences that seem doomed by fate. We hope love can free us, but it rarely does.

How it’s all portrayed is simultaneously matter of fact and abstract with Baby’s vantage point proving an unreliable narrator with no one or nothing able to even start setting the record straight. It looks great and the acting is effective, but I couldn’t stop feeling as though I was being held at arm’s length from engaging with what I was seeing. Baby, Don’t Cry becomes meta in a way as it almost seems like the film Baby would create upon moving to Los Angeles like she dreams of doing. This is the chaotic, frustrating, and liberating adventure her psyche took as a teen to break free culturally and socially from an abusive family life to embrace adulthood—even if it too conjured similar abuse. It’s cathartic, experimental poetry.

And that will surely be enough for some. Perhaps my not being an immigrant or a woman means I simply can’t find the connection necessary to truly experience what Bai has created. This is a story constructed on her terms and as such feels almost too personal to fully enter without the context of knowing what she and her on-screen surrogate know at any given moment. Maybe it’s as simple as understanding that some of us need to implode everything we’ve ever known in order to move forward. Baby lights fire to her childhood by way of Fox and then sets him ablaze too once their tenuous balance is threatened by acknowledging that rebellion is rarely ignited on one’s own terms. It’s time for a true fresh start.

courtesy of the Fantasia International Film Festival

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