Dir. David Ross. US. 2007. 90mins.
First time director David Ross negotiates a precarious line between exploitation and provocation with The Babysitters, the story of a bright and industrious teenager who fronts a high school escort service for bored suburban men. It inverts the story of Risky Business, moving away from male teenage sexual initiation towards a more elusive and problematic study of the emotional costs of female sexual expression.
It results in a film that is risible on certain levels, though one that is also oddly compelling in its refusal to judge its characters, and as a corrective to the almost exclusively male objectification of the female body.
The movie has a quality lead in Katherine Waterston, whose tremulous and sharp performance anchors the movie. Premiering in the Discovery section at Toronto, the movie has some unmistakably commercial elements in the casting, premise and strong production values that should incite some theatrical play and decent ancillary returns for a shrewd US distributor. Internationally, the movie is far less secure.
Narrated by the protagonist Shirley (Waterston), the movie unfolds largely in flashback. It is a strategy that here proves rather unhelpful in that it ruins whatever narrative surprises are allowed in the set up.
Attractive and self-aware, Shirley is desperate to escape her somewhat dull and constricted life. She harbors a serious crush on Michael (Lequizamo), the father of the two young boys she regularly watches. A former hell raiser turned corporate ad copywriter, Michael is similarly restless to inject his life with some excitement and flair. Sharing a tender moment in an abandoned train stockyard, they consummate their illicit attraction.
Taking her home, Michael pays her $200 for the experience. Their trysts are not only more frequent, the exact nature of their sexual contact is unambiguous, a direct business transaction that quickly expands into a call girl ring as Shirley recruits her high school friends and associates to meet the increased demand of Michael's equally bored circle of colleagues and friends. Shirley becomes more ruthless in asserting her authority and control, demanding a 20 percent kickback from the other girls.
A first-time writer and screenwriter, Ross loses his grip on the material during the middle passages. Instead of delving deeper into behavior and motivation, or exploring any issues of guilt, pain or liberation these girls are experiencing, the movie becomes more episodic and incident prone. For instance, the attempts of Shirley's rival to undercut her business by stealing clients and her fearsome, Lady Macbeth-like reprisal. As the movie's various power-plays accumulate, The Babysitters becomes increasingly mannered and ridiculous.
Ross advances, through never adequately explores an idea acknowledged by Shirley in her opening narration: that being well compensated as sex workers is preferable to the normal avenues of low paid, minimum wage jobs endemic to teenage culture.
The film also needs a stronger, more emotionally detailed sense of Shirley's own life. Her mother is barely acknowledged and her father (O'Hare) is insufficiently worked into the story. The character of Gail (Nixon), Michael's wife, is also cruel and mean-spirited.
Ross works best in miniature, suggesting the almost frightening power and control these young women achieve.
The daughter of the excellent American character actor Sam Waterston, Katherine Waterston has exquisite, fine-boned features that she uses expressively. Even as the story recklessly and unfortunately veers off course, she remains emphatically in control, giving a fearless and wounding performance that unfortunately the balance of the film is unable to properly and compellingly utilise.
Forensic Films (US)
O.D.D. Entertainment (US)
Rebel Films (US)
Upload Films (US)
O.D.D Entertainment (US)
Halley Wegryn Gross