Jesse Dvorak’s coming-of-age fable Baby, Don’t Cry explores those who exist on the margins of society. Its central characters are outsiders who, for various reasons, find it difficult to break free of the chains that bound them to a hopeless fate. No one understands this more than 17-year-old Baby (Zita Bai, who also wrote and produced the film), a Chinese immigrant who dreams of one day becoming a filmmaker.
A silent observer of the world around her, she literally does not utter a word for the first 7 minutes of the film, and says very little throughout. Instead, Baby attempts to make sense of life through the lens of her camera. Labeled a “freak” by the high school mean girls, and constantly belittled by the rich woman whose house she cleans to make money, things are not better for the teen at home. Forced to take care of her belligerent mother (Helen Sun) after her father left, Baby frequently dips into the realm of fantasy to cope with unresolved trauma.
Baby’s rather bleak existence finds an unexpected ray of hope when she meets Fox (Vas Provatakis), a delinquent who steals and pawns her camera. Living with his equally volatile older sister Sky (Boni Mata), Fox copes with his health issues by drowning himself in petty crimes and drunken revelry. Instantly seeing in each other what the rest of the world cannot, Baby and Fox begin a turbulent relationship that will force them both to reassess the paths their lives are currently stuck on.
As the pair travels down the unpaved road to adulthood, hitting various thumbtacks that threaten to deflate the fragile tires of their love, the frustrating way Baby, Don’t Cry is constructed becomes more apparent.
One can see the immense potential swirling in the air, but the various themes — family struggles, racism in America, classism, and a young woman’s sexual awakening — rarely land in a satisfying way. Dvorak’s film struggles to juggle the tender moments of the couple’s relationship with the dark fantastical segments of Baby’s psyche. Part of the uneven nature of Baby, Don’t Cry stems from long road it takes to get to the core of Baby’s main trauma. One must rely heavily on that which is unsaid to fill in the numerous gaps. By time the film is finally ready for Baby to confront her past, viewers have already grown weary of her see-saw relationship, which moves between tender and explosive, with Fox.
Although the film struggles to balance its light and dark moments, there are several positives to take away. The most notable being that Bai is clearly a talent who demands our attention. She brings plenty of intrigue and emotion to a complex role that also requires a level of stoicism. The film also has some interesting things to say about the immigrant experience. Not only do those around Baby, including Fox, freely hurl racial slurs at her, but many wrongfully assume she is unable to understand basic English.
Despite its immense potential, Baby, Don’t Cry lacks the resonating punch it strives for. The collage of ideas in Bai’s script never gels well enough to form a riveting picture. This ultimately leaves one on the outside, just like it central characters.
Baby, Don’t Cry plays virtually at the Fantasia Film Festival on August 11 and 13.