“Babymother” is like watching a colorful party going on behind a glass screen. There’s no lack of performance energy and tasty visuals in this reggae drama set among a north London black community, but the characters resolutely fail to reach out and grab the viewer’s attention on an emotional level. Slickly mounted first feature by writer-director Julian Henriques, a former documaker, could capture niche business among ethnic auds and music buffs but doesn’t have much crossover potential for more general sites.
Simple story is basically about puttin’ on an all-girl act. Anita (Anjela Lauren Smith) is a single mother (“babymother” in local slang) in a dreary housing project who dreams of becoming a dance-hall diva. She gets little encouragement from Byron (Wil Johnson), the father of her child and a local reggae star, but nonetheless Anita sets up an all-girl act, dubbed Neeta, Sweeta and Nastie, with her friends Sharon (Caroline Chikezie) and Yvette (Jocelyn Esien).
Anita’s already shaky career plans take a further blow when her supposed mother (Corinne Skinner Carter) dies and her supposed sister, Rose (Suzette Llewellyn), reveals she is Anita’s real mother. Despite this, and a continuing hard time from the male members of the black music community, Anita and her friends struggle on, with the help of a female agent, Bee (Diane Bailey), who promises the girls a dance-hall spot.
On a technical level, pic is extremely impressive, with smooth cutting; rich, saturated colors that bring out the best in Annie Curtis Jones’ costumes; fine widescreen lensing and a moody, coloristic score by John Lunn to fill the gaps between the nine songs (by Beres Hammond, Carroll Thompson, Cinderella and others). The movie also convincingly re-creates a self-contained world among its characters, even when straying onto the streets of north London. (No d.p. is credited on the print, though the production listings name Ron Fortunato.)
But all this technical expertise is hitched to a story in which the personalities and their conflicts are straight out of a dime-store novel. The men behave like brutes, the women suffer but fight back, and the outcome of the Big Finish is never really in doubt. That approach may work in a through-composed musical, but “Babymother” is more a drama with songs in a realistic setting. Beyond this, much of the dialogue is difficult to understand, as much due to the soundtrack as to the accented patois.
Still, the performances are all full-blooded, with special mention for Smith in the title role, Llewellyn as her sister/mother, and Chikezie and Esien as her two sparky pals. Running time is also admirably tight.