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FESTIVAL REVIEW: Dieckmann’s “A Good Baby,” Slow Thriller with a Tender Heart

FESTIVAL REVIEW: Dieckmann's "A Good Baby," Slow Thriller with a Tender Heart

FESTIVAL REVIEW: Dieckmann's "A Good Baby," Slow Thriller with a Tender Heart

By Stephen Garrett

Audience enthusiasm for the film programs at the LAIFF usually
vacillates between mild reception and calamitous applause, depending on
how many of the filmmaker’s friends, family, cast and crew are in
attendance at a hometown film festival like this one. So genuine public
interest, when it’s there, is sometimes hard to parse from the overjoyed
key grip watching his name appear for the first time in some credit
scroll. In the case of Katherine Dieckmann’s “A Good Baby,” though, the mild but sustained
reception it received aptly reflected the caliber of the work, as it
unspooled last Saturday in Sunset Boulevard’s plush Harmony Gold
screening room.

There’s a good heart and an even better story somewhere deep within “A
Good Baby,” a tender but flawed tale about a poor, young hick who finds
an abandoned baby in the woods and starts caring for it as his own. The
thematic strands of loneliness, loss, and family ties weave effectively
throughout the story, and the slow emotional connections each of the
principal characters makes with the baby are visually telling; but
ultimately the film doesn’t leave a lasting impression since the story
itself is so simplistic.

Raymond Toker (Henry Thomas), the last remaining Toker brother since the
others left town, lives in a bomb shelter next to the charred remains of
his family house. Town beauty Josephine Roby (Cara Seymour) has a crush
on Raymond, but he’s too timid to take advantage of her advances.
Besides, when he finds a blood-stained newborn baby girl while hunting
in the forest, all of Raymond’s attention gravitates to the infant. Then
Truman Lester (David Strathairn), a salesman breezes through town to
sell some goods, and appears to hold and linger over Raymond’s baby just
long enough to make Raymond uncomfortable. Turns out that the baby girl
is more than just a passing interest and Lester soon enough grabs the
baby for himself, putting the child right in the middle of harm’s way as
Raymond and his friends track him down.

In terms of the cast, Katherine Dieckmann ekes out shy, persuasive
performances from her leads, including a forlorn intensity from Thomas
and a troubled emptiness from Strathairn. Jim Denault‘s cinematography
is appropriately rich and vibrant without overwhelming the film’s
small-town qualities by having overstated camerawork and lighting. But
the story feels much more slight than its history suggests, since it
started life as a novel by Leon Rooke. The thriller aspect of “A Good
Baby” is its weakest point, although this is not to say that such
plotting should be the film’s strength, either — just to say that
opportunities are lost to use the thriller plotting to reveal more about
the people involved. To its merit, the slow-moving tale indulges
personality and character development, which admittedly delays the
climax and creates a sense of anticipation about the final
confrontation. But that climax is much less profound than it could be.

One recurring quality issue at this year’s LAIFF is a surfeit of
fair-to-good material that with rare exception is relentlessly
conventional and occasionally predictable in its storytelling devices
and plot twists, another reason why “A Good Baby” feels like yet another
example of an endemic conservatism in the independent world that
continues to shy further away from challenging material.

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