Babygirl Paints New York City and Its People as Fragile Yet Strong
New York films often reflect back Manhattan's cool visual tones, blues and slates as cold and forbidding as a glass-box skyscraper. It's kind of what people expect. There's a warmer New York, though, shot through with orange and yellow, canopied by trees, and populated with strong and fragile people, and Macdara Vallely puts his camera there for Babygirl. This small, gentle coming-of-age story, exceedingly well-cast, introduces Yainis Ynoa as Lena, a 16-year-old girl growing up in the Bronx. You learn everything about the principal characters in the film's opening moments, a tight haiku of inner-city domesticity in which Lena's promiscuous mother, Lucy (Rosa Arredondo), is bullied by a recent ex-boyfriend, the father of her infant son. Here is Lucy's irresponsibility and tendency to deflect blame; here also, the steel in Lena's spine and in her glare. She carries the weight of her mother's choices, babysitting her brother, constantly pushing his stroller to her own social engagements. She works a grocery store checkout to help support the family. When people mistake her for the baby's mother, they're almost right. After her 16th birthday party, it's Lena we see cleaning up the mess while Lucy nests in the arms of her latest boyfriend, Victor (Flaco Navaja), who picked her up on the bus. Lena's struggle is compounded by her own sexual awakening, and she's both scared and fascinated when she realizes Victor's inappropriate attraction to her. As Lena navigates this crisis, Ynoa endows her with vulnerability, strength, and charisma equal to that which Vallely finds in Bronx street life, its buildings, train stops, and quiet skyline views of distant Manhattan.