It’s a surprise that “Babygirl” director Macdara Vallely hails from Ireland. His new film, premiering at The Tribeca Film Festival, hums and buzzes with the authentic regional pleasures of the Bronx, the dialects, the smoky bodegas, the sizzling summer pavement. “Babygirl,” which follows the struggles of a small Puerto Rican family, certainly passes the smell test to this particular critic, capturing the neighborhood’s particular charms and unmistakable ethnic identity.
Newcomer Yanis Ynoa is precocious teen Lena, blossoming into a woman, and ready to take on responsibilities she previously avoided. While Max Fischer interpreted this period of growth in “Rushmore” as the need to meet girls, Lena somehow takes her sixteenth birthday as a cue to protect her single mother Lucy (Rosa Arrendono). Mom still has a smoldering sensuality and a desire for youth, to the point where she remains attracted to younger men. This gets her close to twentysomething smoothie Victor (Flaco Navaja), a goateed ladykiller with a roving eye. When suddenly-nubile Lena enters the kitchen in short shorts, Victor’s eyes shoot out like a laser beam.
Lena soon sticks her hand in the fire, openly tempting Victor in an attempt to get this subway playboy away from her fragile mother. Passive-aggressive flirting results in Victor making a bald-faced play — he’ll leave Lena’s mother if it means he can date her. Without thinking it over, Lena says yes. Lena seems driven both by her desire to protect Mommy as much as by her fickle, hormonal cravings. After all, Victor is somewhat handsome, pushy but not impolite. Now, however, Lena has a secret, a suitor, and a genuine insecurity that comes from the rush of new sensations as a teenage girl.
“Babygirl” is a slight diversion, clocking in at 77 minutes plus credits, and while that focus allows for a perceptive portrayal of a tightly-knit mother-daughter, it’s not exactly entirely unpredictable or challenging. There’s warmth to Ynoa’s performance: a natural beauty, she beams when she smiles, and it happens enough in “Babygirl” that you hope she’ll be able to do it again once this mess resolves itself. Credit must also be given to Navaja, who throws himself completely in the role of a good-natured woman chaser with a short-sighted viewpoint, a slender buffoon with bedroom eyes and a manner of speaking with his hands that suggests the eternal struggle to stall for time.
The mismatch between these two is an intellectual tete-a-tete, though Victor, who has done this dance a few times before, remains dense, acting out of desperation when Lena shows the slightest inclination to flake. And Lena, who thinks she holds all the cards with this dummy, still can’t help but string him around, completely insecure in her ability to rebuff a handsome suitor and to simply tell the truth. “Babygirl” spends perhaps a bit too much time on that TV-ish contrivance, weakening the story’s conclusion considerably, though the film still showcases the humanity that results in such emotional Hail Marys, such sightless leaps and bald-faced stunts. [B-]