“Gayby Baby” opens in a fashion familiar to anyone who has watched even a handful of issue-driven documentaries in the decade or so, laden with talking head voiceovers that feature an increasingly enraging series of politicians and other public figures sounding off about a big-time concern they seem loath to truly engage with. In the case of Maya Newell’s latest film, those talking heads are disavowing gay marriage for a multitude of reasons, all of which somehow come back to the sanctity of the family unit and an insistence that it stays traditional. Despite its early dip into politics, “Gayby Baby” works to refute such claims by showing why such thinking is backwards and obviously incorrect, rather than trot out a series of competing talking heads. “Gayby Baby” provides a meaningful and sensitive counterpoint to those who oppose gay marriage, but Newell’s dedication to depoliticizing the issues at hand keeps it from hitting hard enough to leave a mark on the sort of audience that would most benefit from something more direct.
Newell’s film extrapolates out claims that the children of gay parents are somehow lacking an essential element in their lives, taking the storytelling and narrative right to those exact same kids. “Gayby Baby” focuses on four very different children of gay parents – all with different personalities,
interests and worries – that are linked by their “untraditional” family units. The film shifts between each of their storylines, loosely organized around the lead up to events that will likely change each kid’s life in some major ways. (Early on, one of them glumly announces, “I am on the long road to puberty,” and the comment is both amusing and cannily on-point.)
As the film progresses, it becomes clear how even the most commonplace of problems are magnified by outside pressures and societal expectations that don’t weigh on so-called nuclear families. Young Gus’ obsession with televised wrestling worries his mothers, who can’t understand why their once-sweet kid is suddenly so obsessed with a violent sport. While budding singer Ebony practices her singing, she worries about getting accepted into an arts-focused high school that will likely provide a more tolerant environment for her and her moms. Elsewhere, Matt tries to marry his mother’s religious devotion with a congregation that doesn’t support gay marriage, and Graham’s issues with literacy prove to have a heartbreaking root.
“Gayby Baby” succeeds in conveying truths that should be considered self-evident: families led by gay parents are just like any other. The concerns and worries that are portrayed by the parents of “Gayby Baby” are the concerns and worries of any other parent – gay, straight, single, married or otherwise – and the film delivers that message in a personal, non-cloying fashion. But Newell’s decision to mostly remove her film from political concerns (Matt’s story eventually dovetails with a local election that his mothers are deeply concerned about, and it provides the film with a sneakily powerful segment) prohibit the film from using the true-life stories and hard-won emotion to tell a deeper narrative.
The film’s most heartbreaking moment speaks to that problem, an emotion-driven scene that would do wonders with a touch more commentary, the kind of moment that should linger and color the rest of the feature. Young Graham, who has long struggled with literacy, off-handedly mentions that he didn’t even start speaking until he was five years old, because his birth family (you know, the kind with a mother and a father) never taught him to. His adoptive fathers, who are clearly invested in his academic success, stand by, ready to get their child on the right path for himself and his future. It’s a painful, terrible moment that single-handedly helps dispels any myths that straight families are somehow best, or even better, than a loving home created by a homosexual couple. But it’s also the kind of moment that could be a tipping point in a more focused feature, and one that slips by in a film that is lovingly, perhaps wrongly so, committed to staying away from the kind of tactics its detractors so readily employ.
No one needs to roll around in the mud here, but “Gayby Baby” could stand to yell a little louder to be heard.
“Gayby Baby” opens in limited release this Friday.