When I think about films which “explore the immigrant experience” they are often films about outstanding individuals. People who stand as examples of virtue, or at least normality. It is rarer to see those stories of people living on the outskirts, whose experiences are not mainstream fodder, whose poverty leads to behaviors some might see as anti-social. You might call them “the other”, but they are folks for whom the dominant discourse does not fit. Growing up, I knew folks whose experiences were far more diverse. Some did strive to be the exemplary models of what this country lifts up as “good”, and others struggled to get by, skirting the edges of legality, exploring the aspects of society we mine mostly for our morality tales. What is exemplary about Baby, Don’t Cry is how willing it is to be honest about the characters’ experiences without either judging or exonerating them. The film is a coming of age story, but focused on hurting people in a dysfunctional world, whose decisions are as relatable as they are regrettable. At times it trades that reality in for charm, asking us to empathize with folks who we might not like very much, but in so doing tells a uniquely beautiful story. It is a narrative that will not work for everyone, but for some it has the markings a new obsession
Baby, Don’t Cry is written and created by Zita Bai, who also stars as the titular Baby, and directed by Jesse Dvorak. The film follows Baby, a 17 year old child of Chinese immigrants who uses art and her imagination to flee a troubled home. She encounters Fox, a local delinquent, and they begin an explosive and co-dependent relationship. The film is set in Seattle, or at least the outskirts there of, and has some unique settings and atmosphere this location allows. There are both particular and universal themes running through the film. Baby’s experience of rebellion, alienation, and attraction to Fox as a dangerous and yet compelling drug dealer holds kernels of teen experience that many will identify with. Watching it I felt like I was seeing so many of my peers finally portrayed, kids looking for their own meaning and identity while lashing out at the world around them in both constructive and destructive ways. To that extent, this film touched a nostalgia for me that I suspect others who have been at least miscreant adjacent will understand. The narrative of these star crossed young folks does not shy away from their negative aspects. They lash out, they hurt each other, and at times it is difficult for me to understand what keeps them together. The film also avoid romanticizing these more negative interactions. The flaws are import and move the film forward, but the hurtful or stunted emotional aspects are not what make their relationship interesting.
Yet the film also holds a particular narrative, one aspect of the Chinese immigrant experience that has not always been portrayed in media. This is not the “model minority” stereotype that so often permeates the media landscape, but it also lacks the charming quirk of something like Nora From Queens. Dysfunctional families and troubled homes are not unique to any community, but the ways these phenomena unfold in immigrant communities is explored in the film, and while not central to the narrative, is an aspect that could push audiences capacity for empathy. The director Jesse Dvorak has been clear that his hope is that this depiction will humanize immigrant families and help folks outside those communities understand their unique circumstances.
In order for Baby, Don’t Cry to work, the film really relies on two characters. One of course is the titular character of Baby as portrayed by Bai, and in this case there is nothing to worry about. It is possible that having created the character Bai has a unique insight into her persona, and this insight allowed for what I would call one of the most nuanced and compelling performances of the year. Baby is compassionate and selfish, creative and destructive, innocent and passionate, and her struggle to find her way is inspiring. I was so moved by the film’s depiction of her as well as the way Bai brought her to life. She is really worth whatever price to see the film. It is, unfortunately, with the other key character I found my only complaints as viewer. Fox is not an easy character to watch. I do not mean this as a criticism of Vas Provatakis, who I think is incredible in what is a rather thankless role. I also hope I am not simply highlighting my own limitations as a viewer, which is entirely possible. For me though, Fox is simply not interesting or endearing enough to be the focus of so much fascination from Baby. The film struggles to show a few sides to him. He is angry and he is loyal. He is at times incapable of accepting love, but he is also given to acts of devotion. His angry, violent love making is what in some ways Baby is looking for, but it is also upsetting at times. I am not trying to be a puritan about this, get down how you get down, but Fox feels to me like a run of the mill dickhead. Perhaps that is the point, Fox must inevitably be an unworthy focus on Baby’s need for a new life, to be free, to be seen and appreciated and even adored. All I know is that I found him rather insufferable for much of the film. That doesn’t mean the film doesn’t work, I am just curious if there had been more there to care about beyond his smile that maybe I would have been more deeply moved by the narrative?
The cinematography is excellent, often switching to a camcorder view as we see what Baby is recording. This could be gimmicky but it never is, it always works to deepen the emotional impact or to further the narrative. The settings are perfect and the ways they are filmed make the movie have a kind of teen age grime, highlighting the ways folks who are living on the edge find the most interesting places. The supporting cast is solid, with an unbelievable stand out performance by Helen Sun as Mommy, Baby’s matriarch who is slowly losing touch with reality. The editing of the film matches the frantic young adult energy as our charmingly (maybe) nefarious crew go on misadventures of various legality.
Describing this film it is difficult to avoid that there are intense scenes here of abuse, of violence, and even moments of racism that might be difficult for sensitive audience members. Proceed with caution knowing this film is gritty and unapologetic even if it never celebrates these awful narrative events. It is also uninterested in moralizing and is perhaps its’ greatest strength. These are young people making decisions. Some of those decisions are endearing, some are cringe inducing, and for some there are decisions they may find unforgivable. Luckily, this film isn’t about you. It is a narrative that manages to combine a touch of romance and a touch of nostalgia with a rather fraught scenario. Two young people, on the edge, without a lot to lose, love each other, for now, and who knows where that will lead. The ride was for me beautiful, if also frustrating. I wish Fox had offered me more reason to be there. Still, I am grateful Zita Bai has created such a compelling canvas to explore. I recommend it to all knowing fully some of you will find it insufferable, but I demand it of all of you who remember what it was like to be a dumb kid making dumb decisions sometimes for good reasons.