People used to call Judge Ben Saylor the Sheik. Where's his movie?
There's the first one. There's the right one. And there's the one you'll never forget.
I'm a big fan of independent filmmaker John Sayles (Eight Men Out), but having seen nearly all of his films, it's my opinion that he didn't hit his stride completely until his fifth feature, 1987's Matewan (which is crying out for a decent DVD release, it's worth mentioning). Having recently screened the new-to-DVD Baby It's You, Sayles' third film, my stance has not changed; however, like other early Sayles films, there's still plenty to admire here.
Facts of the Case
In 1967 New Jersey, high school senior Jill Rosen (Rosanna Arquette, After Hours) meets the tall, nattily dressed transfer student known as the Sheik (Vincent Spano, Rumble Fish). Initially turned off by his brusque, aggressive manners, Jill eventually enters into an on-again, off-again relationship with Sheik, which is put on hold by her decision to enroll in college and Sheik's sudden move to Miami Beach. But neither can seem to stay out of the other's life completely. Will the pair be able to overcome their stark personality differences to make the relationship work?
Baby It's You is a film that's hard to pin down. During the first act or so, the movie seems pretty predictable: Boy meets girl, girl rebuffs boy, boy persists, girl relents despite opposition from peers, etc. But Sayles (who wrote the film from a story by Amy Robinson) has more on his mind with the film, as he moves the story beyond the high school setting to show both Jill and Sheik in different environments. A lot of movies dealing with high school don't follow their characters post graduation, but Baby It's You does, enabling Sayles to emphasize the great personality and class contrasts between the two. We see Jill as she moves on to college, which never seems to be an option for Sheik, who lives in a tiny apartment in Miami Beach and ekes out a living lip-syncing songs by his idol, Frank Sinatra, as he waits for the ship that deep down he knows ain't coming in. In short, the second half of Baby It's You is surprisingly bleak, and ends on a decidedly bittersweet note.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The first half of Baby It's You has some great moments too: Jill talking with a girlfriend about prom as she dissects a frog in class; Jill and Sheik out for a date where Sheik ignores her the entire night; the quiet moment after Sheik sleeps with Jill's friend Jody (Liane Alexandra Curtis). With this first half, Sayles gives the viewer a fun and energetic look at high school life in the 1960s.
Sayles also helps himself out by employing director of photography Michael Ballhaus (who's shot several movies for Martin Scorsese), who gives the film's mostly-grungy locations an appropriately dim look. Much of the film is shot in long takes (which may have been a cost-saving measure, as Sayles works on small budgets), which allows the viewer to better appreciate not only the film's locations and how it is shot, but also the performances themselves.
Speaking of performances, Rosanna Arquette turns in a strong one as Jill. This is more Jill's story than Sheik's, and Arquette does a great job handling her character's personality changes as the film progresses (even if those changes as written are tough to swallow; see The Rebuttal Witnesses), putting in a believable, naturalistic turn that's great to watch. For his part, Spano holds his own with what sometimes seems like a strangely written character (see The Rebuttal Witnesses). The actor gives Sheik an appropriately cocksure (but a titch awkward) bravado, as well as a palpable vulnerability and desperation, particularly in the film's second half. The two also act very well together in the penultimate scene in Jill's dorm room, where the wide gap in the two's feelings for each other is spelled out in blunt, depressing (but honest) language.
Sayles also stocks his film with all kinds of great (if not always accurate for the period) music from the likes of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Dusty Springfield, the Supremes, Frank Sinatra, and more. The music is well chosen and certainly doesn't kowtow to the usual "greatest hits" picked for movies from this era.
Legend Films' DVD of Baby It's You is decent in the video and audio departments; the image has faded and has some grain but isn't bad per se. Dialogue is always clear, although the music comes through rather subdued at times. There are absolutely no extras, not even a trailer. Sayles' films on DVD generally at least have some extras, so the complete absence of special features is a little disheartening. Also, the packaging boasts of a "star turn" by Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man). Legend Films clearly has a different definition of "star turn" than I do, because I actually had to go through the film again to find Downey, who plays Stewart, the prom date of one of Jill's friends during the high school portion of the film. As near as I could tell, he appears in two scenes: prom and the scene afterwards where the prom group is at the bar.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While I respect Sayles for giving Baby It's You a somewhat unconventional storyline for a movie of its genre, he sometimes falters when bringing his characters along that journey. In the first half, it's Sheik who suffers in this regard. As written during the high school portion of the film, Sheik pretty much comes off as a stalker, following Jill around and dropping into her classes unannounced (evidently there weren't any hall monitors at this school), turning up at her play practice, and even forcing her and a friend into a car at gunpoint so they can "talk." The way Sheik behaves in this portion of the film indicates that in a long-term relationship (i.e. marriage) with Jill, he would at best be obsessively jealous and needy and at worst be mentally and physically abusive. I get that Jill isn't nearly as attached to Sheik as Sheik is to her, but watching Sheik's behavior, it's hard to believe that Jill would give him the time of day, let alone go on multiple dates with him. (Giving him a TPO would be more like it.)
In the second half of the film, it's Jill's character that has problems. Her transformation from innocent high school girl to a pot smoking, booze swilling party girl who hops into bed with a young Matthew Modine (!) feels way too abrupt. Sayles does establish Jill's troubles adjusting to college life early on (in a great sequence featuring Jill's mother reading an optimistic letter from Jill that runs contrary to her reality at the school), but the way the film depicts it, her downward slide happens almost overnight.
Baby It's You is an interesting but flawed film, featuring strong performances, solid cinematography, and a memorable soundtrack. In this reviewer's opinion, someone looking for an introduction to Sayles' work would do better to seek out Matewan, Lone Star, or Sunshine State first, but Baby It's You is still an important early film for the writer/director.
The film itself is not guilty, after taking into consideration Sayles' terrific career in the years to follow. Legend Films, however, is admonished for releasing this long-unavailable film without even a trailer.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Legend Films
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