Just like we did for the Puerto Rican short, Gabi, Bianca and I decided to do a a joint review/conversation about another film from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. We picked Babygirl, a feature length film also centering a Puerto Rican family, with many Puerto Rican actors, but not by a Puerto Rican. Does that matter in terms of how a story is told? Read what Bianca and I thought and please join in the conversation.
M: Just like the synopsis of Gabi grabbed your attention Bianca, the synopsis of Babygirl piqued my interest and brought out many conflicting emotions even before I saw the film.
For as long as she can remember, Bronx teenager Lena has watched her young man-crazy single mom Lucy waste her time on a series of less-than-perfect boyfriends. And even though she should be paying attention to the neighborhood boys’ flirtations herself, Lena has been spending most of her time being the mother Lucy forgets to be. But when Mom’s latest boy toy Victor quickly proves to be her worst suitor yet, Lena sets up a trap to expose him for the creep she thinks he is.
Set in the uneasy but rhythmic streets of the Bronx, this unassuming story of a passionate Puerto Rican family comes to life with authenticity and just the right amount of restraint and naturalism. Irish-born director Macdara Vallely captures a vivid portrait of a young mother and her daughter both coming of age while crafting a likeable yet shifty character in Victor…
M : While not a Bronx Rican, as a single Queens Rican mami to daughters, including one teen, I felt defensive watching the character of Lucy constantly having to defend herself against the slut label. Where with Gabi I questioned if mami’hood and sexuality were portrayed as opposites, here it seem clear to me that single mami’hood and sexuality = puta’hood.
B: Word. That’s how the story/film begins: with her fighting with her “baby’s father” who is abusive and who she has to call the police on to remove. We see Lena find Lucy in the bathroom fixing her make-up and it seems that this interaction is so normalized for her, she cares about her appearance and that seems to be an attempt for the viewer to make a connection to her questionable choices and lackluster parenting style. We see Lucy as a pathetic, lonely, and sad-I-don’t-have-a-man woman which impacts her ability to be a parent.
M: I think it’s useful to recognize that this film, unlike Gabi, was not written and directed by a Puerto Rican. The director and writer,Macdara Vallely, is an Irish man who has lived in the Bronx for the almost 10 years and is married to a Puerto Rican woman. In an interview I read, Vallely said he was inspired by witnessing a man hit on a woman and her daughter on a subway. How interesting that he made the behavior of mother and daughter seem almost pathological while O felt Victor was portrayed as more complex.
B: Yes the point of view is not one that is contrived and not at all authentic from our point of view as women, Puerto Ricans, and always seen as sexually available. You see the many layers of the women characters in Gabi, but not so much with the women characters in Babygirl. A man, Victor, becomes the center of their story together and what ends up creating a riff in their mother-daughter relationship. As if this is the one thing (out of the tons) that would impact a mother-daughter the most. Men are the center of all the women characters lives: the boy child Lucy has and that requires Lena to care for on a regular basis, the local boy interested in Lena, and Victor. Interesting how these two men, one who doesn’t even speak, takes up so much of their attention and lives.
M. Essentially this is a coming of age story but whose coming of age seems to be a question. Is it Lena – struggling between two women – her mother and her friend who are portrayed as not having her back when it comes to boys and men? Or is it Lucy who is portrayed as a failure as a mother for not balancing her desires with her role as a mother and provider forcing the “babygirl” – Lena into early adulthood and situations.
B. Yes! I think some may see this as a clever and thoughtful way of having us question who is coming of age. But I, as a Puerto Rican woman, find this to not be clever at all and pretty condescending and infantilizing.
M. I feel like I should talk about what I did like about the film. I did appreciate the use of Spanglish in the film. I loved the soundtrack, and I loved seeing local talent like Flaco Navaja and Sandra Rodriguez. I loved that the Bronx was actually used to film the movie especially the inclusion of mass transit since really so many stories do happen there.
B: Yes there were definitely elements that I thoroughly enjoyed. Seeing Navaja in a role that is very much a villain, one I haven’t seen him in before as the last time I saw him was in East Willy B, was nice. I liked that Lena had supportive people in her life when she needed them, although she didn’t reach out to them until later, it was nice to be reminded of that support. Plus, I liked how Lena’s resistance was presented, especially during her interactions with friends and the boy who showed interest. Her “talking back” were powerful scenes for me, yet I think some folks may see them as Lena acting out and being disrespectful versus her standing up for herself and what she believes she needs.
M. I felt like the relationships between women, specifically Latina women, were really one dimensional. You have the perceived dysfunction between Lena and her mother where the mother is too much of a friend, where we see Lena taking care of her brother as a problem, and where a mother can’t be trusted to have her daughter’s back and vice-versa. You have the betrayal and back stabbing over a man between Lena and her friend. Basically Rican women will choose their man over their mother, daughter, friend and the men – well they will be the saviors or the escape.
B: This film would not pass the Bechdel Test (as problematic as that test is) the fact that the women in the film don’t talk to one another about anything other than men is telling (and such a part of the fact that men were a part of creating this film). I’m reminded of the work of Oscar Lewis and his “culture of poverty” in La Vida. This narrative is kind of like the new/21st Century version of La Vida and that’s gross and dehumanizing.
M: Look as a woman who was a young single mother and now as a single mami to a teen, it’s hard and I think that the film tried to show that but in the worse way possible. Towards the end of the film when Lucy says she’s going to change, it’s not believable because Lena is left in the kitchen making her own food and then there’s that shot of Lena behind the window guards referencing some sort of imprisonment. Do single Rican mamis make mistakes? Yes. Does this mean there are no victories, triumphs, or that we and our daughters are doomed? No. We hear that message enough already.
B: When Lucy goes searching for Lena after kicking her out (over a man) she only goes up to other men in the street asking if they have seen Lena! Even though this film is supposed to be about Lucy and Lena, it is really about men. And, I’m ok with having stories about men, just not by having our lives be the stage for sharing those stories. It’s a reminder that we are still not valued, and that’s a narrative I can do with out because we already live and survive that on a regular basis!