Babygirl is Irish filmmaker Macdara Vallely’s alternatively wistful and funny tale of a sixteen year-old wise-beyond-her-years Bronx girl named Lena (Yainis Ynoa) who defiantly protects her mother (Rosa Arredondo). A lonely single mom, Lucy is easily swayed by flattery, which repeatedly links her to unworthy male suitors.
When an oily, mustachioed youngster named Victor (Flaco Navaja) flirts openly with both Lena and Lucy on a public bus, Lena becomes disgusted while Lucy falls for his slick patter. Even though it becomes quickly evident who the grown-up is—Lucy excitedly wakes Lena up to brag about her date, on a schoolnight—Lucy tries to exert whatever shaky authority she has over Lena, scolding her to “dress decent” when Victor sleeps over. Lena is understandably angry, but also dealing with her own budding sexuality—she feels left out, and part of her desires Victor—so she hatches an ill-fated plan to keep Victor and Lucy separated.
There aren’t huge surprises in Babygirl. Some of Vallely’s metaphors are a little obvious (on a date with Victor, Lena contemplates ordering from the kiddie menu, a sign of her naiveté), and the supporting characters are a little basic: the requisite sweet teenaged boy whom Lena rebuffs and then appreciates, and the more sexually-experienced best friend, to name a few.
On the other hand, Vallely is a wonderful framer of tense tableaux; especially noteworthy is a shot of Lucy and Victor cuddling on the bus, while Lena scowls in the foreground. And he has a knack for hapless characters, all more vulnerable than they think they are. Victor, for instance, comes off like a lothario, but when he implores Lena to run away with him, and she responds, “where?” his desperate answer is “Staten Island.”
The acting, by an unknown cast, is pitch-perfect. The soundtrack (most of it was composed by Rebio Diaz) is compellingly gloomy and the setting is thoroughly authentic (most of Babygirl was shot on location in the Bronx).
Vallely grew up in Craigavon, a small town in Northern Ireland, during the height of the I.R.A. conflict in the Seventies and Eighties. Although never a direct victim of the I.R.A.’s violent practices, he was certainly not immune to the ugly, unjust environment of the time. He wound up studying theater and took several plays on international tours; infatuated with New York City, he moved there in 2000.
By 2004, he had shot two short films back in Ireland and starred in a one-man play, called Peacefire, that based on his unsettling adolescent memories of Northern Ireland. Peacefire premiered at New York’s Arlene’s Grocery and was eventually presented at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where several producers beseeched him to adapt Peacefire into a film. The bleak and disturbing movie, filmed on location, was released in 2008.
Four years later Vallely’s Babygirl, a film which could not be more different in tone or setting than his previous effort, is being presented at the Tribeca Film Festival. Screen Comment talked with him about his childhood, his emigrating to New York and how he was inspired to write Babygirl.
Screen Comment-Is Peacefire autobiographical?
Macdara Vallely-Well, I wasn’t a car thief and I didn’t get my knees blown off. But it was set where I grew up. The location where the boy in Peacefire lived was the house opposite where I grew up. The things depicted in that movie are all real events. I grew up during that political conflict.
Did any of the gang violence happen to people you know?
Yes, is the short answer. The violence is unfortunately still part of the environment there. I wasn’t personally at risk of that violence happening to me, because I went to a grammar school and I mostly behaved myself.
What was the experience of shooting Peacefire like?
It was shot for $200,000. It was complicated by various factors. We got caught up in a riot and our entire security team was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, because the riot happened right when we were [filming] the car blowing up. It was one of these odd cases of life imitating art.
Babygirl is a much more lighthearted story. What inspired it?
I’ve been living in the Bronx for twelve years. When I came to New York, I didn’t do the traditional Irish route of staying in Irish neighborhoods. I tended to stay more in neighborhoods which had people from different parts of the world.
Where I live, there’s a large Latino community. The story was inspired by a real-life incident I saw on the train going home. It’s in the film, when Victor tries to pick up Lucy and Lena on the bus. I saw this guy hitting on a girl first, but she was having none of it, and then he started talking to her mother and she was really lapping up the attention.
I watched the mother and daughter and this guy get off the train at the next stop. It stuck with me for awhile. I wondered about that girl and what would happen to her. It’s similar to Peacefire in the sense that the girl is a victim of her circumstance. But I’d gotten sick of the victim/passivity thing, and I wanted her to try to fight back. And that propelled the script. I wrote it in 2008 and shot it in the summer of 2010.
Did you shoot the film entirely in the Bronx?
Most of the exteriors were shot there and in Washington Heights. The interiors were shot at a place called Fort Totten, these army barracks in Queens. We shot it in sixteen days.
What was the budget for it?
Under $1 million.
What or who are you encouraged by as you get through the filmmaking task?
I have very Catholic tastes when it comes to art. I like tragedy. For Babygirl, I was inspired by how the music is dealt with in The Graduate. It’s very advanced and beyond its time. We worked with a friend of mine, Rebio Diaz, to integrate a selection of songs performed by him. I also like Ken Loach, Spike Lee, the early Italian neorealist films. I watched a lot of those when I was preparing Peacefire.
Does the film have a lot of festival appearances lined up, besides Tribeca?
No. It hasn’t really been seen by anyone other than the Tribeca Film Festival people, producers, and financiers. We toured Peacefire for eighteen months at festivals around the world. I hope that something similar will happen with Babygirl.
What’s the next stop for you?
I’m co-writing a screenplay with a filmmaker named Philippe Aractingi, he did a movie called Under the Bombs [2007 French-Lebanese production.] It’s set in Beirut and Ireland. And I’m working on an original film, a crime thriller set at the Bronx-Yonkers border about the terrible consequences of love. Yonkers was radically transformed in the Sixties and Seventies because of a policy called scatter-site housing [in which publicly funded low-income housing units are scattered throughout middle-income residential areas.] It transplanted a lot of people from the urban city centers and there was a lot of conflict that you can still see evidence of today.
I saw a video on YouTube of actors trying out for Babygirl; was your film’s original title Losing It? Howcome the change?
Well, Losing It seemed like a downer title. There’s also a really nasty Tom Cruise vehicle from the early Eighties, some terrible thing called Losin’ It, and I didn’t want my film to be confused with that (WATCH a scene from Babygirl here).
Screen Comment is at the Tribeca Festival; expect daily reporting via the site and Twitter.