starring Zita Bai, Boni Mata, Vas Provatakis, Helen Sun
written by Zita Bai
directed by Jesse Dvorak
Fantasia Festival runs from August 5 to August 25, 2021. For more details, visit their website.
by Walter Chaw Zita Bai stars in and scripts Baby, Don't Cry, a film by Jesse Dvorak that follows a rough few weeks in the life of troubled teen Baby (Bai). Unsuccessfully navigating a dysfunctional home and hostile high-school environment, she meets bad boy Fox (Vas Provatakis) and, in the tradition of stuff like Badlands and Gun Crazy, falls in love and engages in some very bad things--not necessarily in that order. The promise of the piece is that Baby initially seems unfamiliar: a heavily-accented Chinese-American who consoles her loneliness with a habit of filming people and things--perhaps to contextualize them, though more likely to hold them in digital amber, thus negating their immediate threat. The problem is that this promise is largely squandered in a series of repetitive conflicts and resolutions punctuated now and again by hints of magic realism (like her mother sprouting pig ears, or a cartoon fox pacing a car) that, again, are suggestive of a deeper exploration of alienation and loss without the muscle to provide an adequate reckoning with them.
Consider a scene in which Fox, high and violent, throws Baby around and tells her, "Go back to China where you belong." While obviously a loaded, painful exchange, it doesn't expand Fox and Baby's relationship by exposing some deep-seated intolerance, nor does it evolve Baby's independence despite the subsequent montage of her rededicating herself at school (where she's failing) and at her housekeeping job. There are undeniably arresting images in Baby, Don't Cry--Baby smoking blunts on a backcountry road and on a concrete piling overlooking a body of water at magic hour--but I do wonder what story these images are trying to tell. Is it Baby's isolation? Is it her contemplating her relationship? Her future? Her past? The tension between how the film looks and what it says is a constant, and constantly destabilizing, aspect of the piece. It feels like Dvorak is telling a meditative story whereas Bai is trapped somewhere in the ugly brutalism of early Harmony Korine. A sequence where Baby forces Fox to look at cellphone video of home-porn proving his infidelity is, in a word, overwrought. It's too big for the frame, huge and extravagant and, ultimately, mortally self-indulgent.
Late in the show, Bai spells out the thesis of Baby, Don't Cry when Baby's mother (Helen Sun), alternately monstrous and grasping, tells Baby that they "don't belong here." So it's an immigrant drama, a story of displacement and the difficulty of forging connections across lingual and cultural barriers. There's a surprise reveal that isn't much of a surprise, and suddenly it all coalesces as something like an attempt at a Lynne Ramsay movie in general, Morvern Callar in particular. It's finally at once opaque and obvious--opaque enough that one wonders if it could really only be about the things that all of these films are kind of about, and unpleasant enough in its solipsism that one wonders if the film is actually about how immigrants and children of immigrants can sometimes retreat into the splendid isolation of their exile. There are lots of ways to approach Baby, Don't Cry, in other words, but not a lot of reasons to put in the effort to do so.