David F. Morgan‘s “City Baby” is a modest character study of Cloey (Cora Benesh, who also co-wrote the screenplay), an aspiring…something, boldly going nowhere. With her father (Daniel Baldwin) footing the bills without question, Cloey is free to pursue her relationship with aging rockstar-wannabe Jesse (Andrew Harris) as she perpetually despairs over her life in Portland. When a blown audition call leads to a meet-cute with Michael (Richard Keith), a considerably more on-point ad exec, Cloey juggles competing feelings while attempting to come into her own as a twenty-something layabout. Yes, it’s a story that’s been told half to death in the last decade or so, but Morgan never lets it get too portentous and Benesh leads a strong cast while turning in a strong performance that’s only somewhat undone by an tidy ending that feels out of step with the rest of the film.
Despite our impression of the fine city of Portland having been irrevocably tainted by “Portlandia,” “City Baby” doesn’t do much to buck the trend. In fact, the uniformly vibrant soundtrack might well be composed of local bands that pop up on stage at the clubs our cast weaves in and out of, always in a haze, rarely sober. Cloey is best friends with Paige (Jillian Leigh), a hairdresser with ambitions of making it as a fashion designer in the Big Apple. While Cloey sticks by the milquetoast Jesse, Paige hops from boyfriend to boyfriend until an encounter with Jay (Dustin Rush) suggests something more long-term.
Morgan and Benesh penned the two storylines to develop concurrently, and Paige’s romance occasionally threatens to upstage Cloey’s triangle. Benesh is hardly at fault here, embodying the aimlessness and the masked fears that dog Cloey and eventually leave her unmoored and nearly broken. It’s just that, despite the muscular lead performance, the character of Cloey is less than likeable and frequently irritating. We understand her indecision and attempts to stave off the trappings of an adult life but if you do not see reflections of yourself in her, she does tend to come off as privileged at best and judgmental and stuck-up at worst. Leigh’s Paige fares better because she seems to acknowledge her patterns and flaws, and knows how to use them to her advantage. Leigh does terrific work that suggests a major shift in her perspective despite having to step aside mid-film to let Cloey’s story unfold center stage.
Harris as rocker Jesse finds the proper mixture of a man chasing an impossible dream and partner who appears poised to doom his relationship almost as soon as he enters the picture. Jesse is very much Cloey’s potential future, a man whose passion comes and goes and whose prospects are less than clear. Keith’s Michael, on the other hand, is underdeveloped but charming and a tad manipulative, although how he gets at Cloey is hardly nefarious. His lifestyle is at odds with her personality, but looks are looks and the ad exec is determined to get the woman. It is unfortunate that Michael’s storyline simply ends, and a potentially interesting character is left to be nothing more than a stepping stone for our lead.
As “City Baby” wraps up, the film slips into unfortunate fantastical territory where Cloey earns a redemptive ending without much effort on her part. Things simply fall into place after a drunken tryst in a photo studio. We should take a moment to appreciate the fact that while Morgan does include a good deal of nudity in the film, it never feels inorganic or awkwardly staged. No doubt there is a commercial benefit to it but it’s also the first time in a long while we’ve seen a balanced mixture of stylistic and realistic love-making.
It’s a solid picture bolstered by the cast and unobtrusive direction, which is a skill in itself. If Morgan and Benesh set out to tell a story of redemption for Cloey, they’ve succeeded partially. The film’s strength lies in its setting and the performances brought to the table. The emotions are palpable and the city’s unique tableau well on display. It may not be especially memorable, but you do have to admire a well-made, unpretentious indie of small ambitions. [B]
“City Baby” recently screened at Cinequest and can next be seen at the Seattle True Independent Film Festival.