An honors student turns into a high school version of Heidi Fleiss when clients request more than child-minding services in the indie misfire “The Babysitters.” At first, David Ross’ writing-helming debut seems to promise a reflection on the soul-crushing mundanity of suburbia a la “American Beauty,” or some of the cynical satire of “Mini’s First Time,” but it ultimately fails to deliver on the audacity of its premise. Neither truly original nor a guilty-pleasure genre spin, the pic lacks a hook for general audiences who may find the subject matter distasteful as presented.
Casually amoral tone is set in the opening moments, with an attention-grabbing scene of middle-aged men in compromising positions with teen girls. Voiceover of protag Shirley (Katherine Waterston, daughter of vet thesp Sam) promises to explain about her baby-sitting service, noting, “Paid fellatio’s not that much more humiliating than flipping burgers.”
Backtracking several months, pic shows ultra-organized, financially challenged Shirley falling into an affair with married advertising exec Mike (John Leguizamo), father of two of her charges. He assuages his guilt by slipping her substantial bonuses.
Mike tells old college pal Jerry (Denis O’Hare) about their relationship/deal while Shirley spills the beans to best friend Melissa (sparky Lauren Birkell). When Jerry wants to schedule a special baby-sitter, Melissa’s willing to oblige, and Shirley claims 20% for making the appointment.
Soon, demand for babysitters-cum-call girls outstrips supply, so Shirley recruits stepsisters Brenda (Louisa Krause) and Nadine (Halley Wegryn Gross). In spite of her cool assessment of risk and reward, Shirley loses control as her empire expands and employees rebel.
Ross’ skills as writer-director are shown to best advantage in the brightly choreographed, wickedly funny high school scenes. Montage of girls sliding envelopes with Shirley’s pimping fee into her locker is particularly nice. He also tips his hat to the gangster genre when Shirley and Melissa stage power plays to frighten a disloyal underling who’s trying to cut into the business.
More problematic is the depiction of prostitution (never explicitly shown) as a choice the girls are very much in control of. Strangely, only “dumb” girl Brenda is shown as having any moral quandaries.
Shirley’s transformation from principled straight-arrow to amoral, money-grubbing businesswoman is not completely convincing, although it’s more due to the script than Waterston’s game perf. Leguizamo seems to want to make Mike nicer than the plot dictates, while Birkell and Krause make strong impressions in supporting roles.
Tech package is smooth, with high school scenes boasting the most visual panache.