A poetic, ambitious and intelligently crafted film from first-time director Katherine Dieckmann, “A Good Baby” is an affecting portrait of a rural Southern community’s reaction to the discovery of an abandoned newborn child. Taking some visual cues from Terrence Malick, Dieckmann creates a world of sumptuous images with an underbelly of dark secrets. Pic is powered by a fine cast and could conceivably segue from festivals into limited theatrical release in specialized markets.
Writer-helmer Dieckmann’s teasing prologue provides just enough information to pique the curiosity: In a dimly lit car, a lecherous older man (David Strathairn) suggestively fondles a pregnant teenage girl. By beginning in medias res with an elliptical style that leaves much to the imagination, Dieckmann paints a portrait of the South that’s rife with contradictions. It’s a seemingly simple world in which characters harbor painful yearnings and hidden secrets. Deeply resistant to change, it’s also a place where the past is very much prologue.
When young loner Raymond Toker (Henry Thomas, in a sensitive, restrained performance) happens upon an abandoned infant in the woods, he unwittingly sets off a chain of events that will transform his life. Wandering the roads of his underpopulated and eerily lovely North Carolina community, Toker seeks the baby’s parents but can find no one to claim her. As he begins to bond with the child, it becomes clear that Toker has his own history of loss.
The locals, meanwhile, are almost as enigmatic as Toker. While a taciturn young girl wanders the region in search of her sister, a pretty, aloof woman named Roby (Cara Seymour) is drawn to Toker but wants nothing to do with the baby to whom he has grown so deeply attached. Linked by their simple ways and long-held traditions, the village folk seem to dwell in a bygone era. So when smooth-talking traveling salesman Truman Lester (Strathairn) appears in his city-slick duds and oversize automobile, the locals are understandably leery.
In light of a somewhat grisly discovery, the baby’s origins are finally revealed, though many questions remain. In a film that consistently reveals character through situation, gestures and glances speak louder than words. A movement as simple as Truman stroking a baby, for instance, brims with horrifying implications, and Strathairn, perfectly cast, gives a creepily affecting performance. One of few name actors who can switch so fluidly between villains (“Dolores Claiborne”) and good guys (“The River Wild”), he compellingly renders Truman a sad, misguided soul.
In light of the careful, reined-in filmmaking that informs much of “A Good Baby,” it’s disappointing that Dieckmann permits a contrived, penultimate sequence that scrambles to resolve the conflict with forced haste. After at least one character has a sudden change of heart, there’s an overwrought struggle in the woods that feels like the film’s only concession to Hollywood cliche. For the most part, however, Dieckmann and lenser Jim Denault capture a lush, beautiful world where innocence and danger coexist in appalling serenity.