A sophomore feature (and first U.S. production) for Irish writer-helmer Macdara Vallely, “Babygirl” is steeped in his current living environs as a resident of the Bronx, and member (by marriage) of its Puerto Rican, aka “Nuyorican,” community. That sense of place and people is much better defined than the story, which hinges on the flying-wedge figure of a man who comes between a close-knit mother and daughter, but who remains the script’s most underdeveloped aspect. Nonetheless, this slender pic’s unpretentious appeal could score modest exposure. It won the Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema at the Santa Barbara fest.
Just turning 16, Lena (Yainis Ynoa, who looks even younger) has never been kissed — a source of hilarity to her boy-crazy friend Daishan (Gleendilys Inoa) — but she’s seen plenty of men come and go as bad boyfriends to her still-hot mother, Lucy (Rosa Arredondo), who’s a romantic pushover and very poor judge of character. Lucy now has a baby boy to care for from her last unpleasant breakup, yet she falls over like a bowling pin at the first strike of much younger Victor (Flaco Navaja), a playa type who knows an easy mark when he sees one.
Trouble is, Lena is aware that his real interest is in her. Rather than hurt Lucy’s feelings by breaking that news, she schemes to break them up by whatever covert means necessary. That means reluctantly going out on a “date” with Victor in exchange for his leaving Mom’s bed, even as she grows genuinely interested in the more age-appropriate Xavier (a scene-stealing Joshua Rivera).
Likably sketched as the characters and atmosphere are, the pic never decides quite what to do with Victor: Is he a creepy pedophile? Does he have a sincere, even courtly interest in Lena? Does she somewhat return that interest, despite her better judgment? The pic flags all these possibilities but never really pursues any of them satisfactorily, resulting in a hazy narrative whose major instigator never fully comes into focus.
Nevertheless, “Babygirl” has sufficient authenticity and charm as a summer-in-the-city miniature to easily hold attention, however modest its payoff. Perfs are solid, assembly aptly scruffy yet pro, and the whole is considerably enlivened by a soundtrack full of attractive Latin pop.