Lena (Yainis Ynoa) wanders the streets of the Bronx aimlessly in Babygirl.
As a coming-of-age story, Macdara Vallely's Babygirl is quite successful. Front and center in the film is Yainis Ynoa, an attractive young talent whose Lena is equal parts street smart and naive. These characteristics help her navigate the tricky waters of the Bronx where her mother's boyfriend lusts after her while she struggles to deal with boys her own age. Because she must serve as her self-centered mother's babysitter, she's distrustful of men and afraid to let any of them close to her, even kindly pizza delivery boy Xavier (Joshua Rivera). Watching Lena's journey toward discovering her own identity is a treat. Unfortunately, Babygirl too often gets bogged down in clunky and deeply cliched melodrama.
Her mother is Lucy (Rosa Arredondo), and the boyfriend, who's much younger, is Victor (Flaco Navaja). From the moment they met, however, the much younger Victor had eyes for Lena. She's afraid to tell her mother, and this initial reluctance proves a big mistake as Victor becomes a regular part of her life. Lena is game for trying anything if it means her mother, who's prone to falling for the wrong type of guy, dumps this creep, and she ultimately settles on telling him that if he breaks up with Lucy, Lena will go out on one date with him. He does, but she doesn't reciprocate. What she wasn't prepared for was Victor's persistence, which complicates her life in ways she never could have anticipated.
Everything starts out interestingly enough, and there's a great ambiguity in Ynoa's performance, as we're never quite clear where Lena's true feelings end and her deceptive seduction of Victor begins. It's pretty clear, however, that Vallely's screenplay needed polishing. The proof is in the details—when a character steps away from her phone at an inopportune moment, or when another leaves her phone somewhere when she would presumably most need it. The film's dramatic climax is utterly implausible, and some of the dialogue falls completely flat. Though the characters are fully realized, the situations in which they find themselves never rise above B-movie or soap opera territory.
Technically, the film is unremarkable. There's also the problem of too many meaningless musical montages. It's all a shame because there's talent involved here, especially when it comes to the actors. Ynoa, as outlined earlier, is excellent. Both Arrendondo and Navaja give their characters a great deal of complexity, especially the latter, whose Victor is not the serial killer you might expect him to be. Even Joshua Rivera is good in a role that's criminally underwritten. Xavier is more a plot device than a fully realized individual, but Rivera has a presence that makes the character stand out far more than he should.
There's nothing in Babygirl that's inherently uncommercial, but there also isn't anything that's going to set the film world on fire. It just goes to show you, even great performances can't make up for a story that's only half there.