Good friends often split restaurant checks, but can they split child-raising duties? That’s the catchy premise of writer-director Sam Friedlander’s outrageous comedy “Babysplitters,” which earned the Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema at the Santa Barbara film fest. Combining the DNA of “She’s Having a Baby” and “Indecent Proposal,” Friedlander’s audacious hook is sure to spur thought-provoking discussions about its progressive parenting ideas. The trials and travails of impending parenthood are captured through Friedlander’s highly comedic filter, giving birth to enough dazzling wit to sustain the gimmick.
Married couple Sarah (Emily Chang) and Jeff Penaras (Danny Pudi) are having trouble trying to conceive — that is, to conceive of a life as full-time parents. Jeff’s feeling the pressure of being stuck in a dead-end sales job at a startup company, and Sarah is feeling the pressure of being at the mercy of her ticking biological clock. Neither is totally enthused about the prospect of a child, but they’re also aware of the potential regret if they don’t take the plunge. Their best friends Taylor (Maiara Walsh) and Don Small (Eddie Alfano) are also caught at a similar crossroads when it comes to family planning. Taylor, a professional dancer, has no yearning to carry a child, but Don is all for procreation since his fitness business — his metaphorical baby — is maturing successfully.
Over a double dinner date one night, the two couples devise a strategic plan: They’re going to share the responsibilities of child-rearing by splitting a baby. Their offspring will be shuttled back and forth between their two homes, giving each set of parents time to recuperate. Divorced parents make this system work, so why can’t they? And since Sarah wants to carry a child and Don’s perfect genes make him the preferable specimen to have a healthy, good-looking kid, their scheme seems like it won’t fail. But this setup wouldn’t make for a provocative feature if funny and not-so-funny complications weren’t bound to arise.
Though the story is ostensibly about four individuals’ journeys towards acceptance, the feelings of excitement, apprehension, jealousy, and joy are contextualized primarily through the character of Jeff. His clinical approach to decision-making — everything from the shenanigans surrounding the insemination process to choosing the specific order of the baby’s hyphenated last name — is insightful and funny. Anchoring the narrative in his neuroses brings a fantastical element to his delusions of perfection and paranoia, which complements the bombastic nature of the film’s concept. His daydream montages, imagining both nightmarish and realistic scenarios raising the child, are equal parts hilarious, heartbreaking, and hopeful. Friedlander and editor Christine Kim achieve a John Hughes-inspired emotional energy during those three segments, adding powerfully-charged poignancy.
The children’s birthday party ambush, where kids attack Jeff with water guns and various other weaponry, also adds a heightened sense of hilarity and audience engagement. Child-free audiences feel his anguish over his ruined expensive jeans, while parents nod along in “I told you so” agreement. Crafted like an epic action set piece, this is where Kim’s crisp pacing, Friedlander’s framing, Alicia Robbins’ sparkling cinematography, and composer Jimmy Stofer’s soundscape all work in concert, delivering a buoyant scene.
Still, it wouldn’t be entertaining if the filmmakers focus solely on the sunshine and rainbows of pregnancy. They take great care in handling thwarted plans that can sometimes materialize for pregnant women. Taboo topics not often mentioned in feel-good comedies, like miscarriage and abortion, organically float to the surface during heated dramatic moments and are handled with a tender touch.
Despite being a smidge too long, “Babysplitters” never feels plodding, as Friedlander and his troupe keep the character-driven actions at the forefront. Audiences grow to care about these characters — thanks in part to the performances of the four leads. Pudi is every inch the leading man the material deserves, revealing colors he hasn’t shown in previous films. Chang serves up honest, heart-filled work. And both Walsh and Alfano build a delightful array of depth and dimension into their characters’ motivations.
The path to the inevitable but deeply moving conclusion is lively and thoroughly entertaining. Friedlander gets us there by throwing in unexpected yet true-to-life twists and turns that will likely be all too familiar to new parents, who typically don’t have the help of a second couple to share the responsibility.