Is John Sayles a forgotten filmmaker? I feel like John Sayles is a forgotten filmmaker. I never read anything about him, never hear of any retrospectives of his films, can’t find anywhere to stream Matewan, which I think is my favorite Sayles film, but without having seen it for so many years, how can I be sure? Maybe my favorite Sayles film is The Secret of Roan Inish. Maybe it’s The Brother from Another Planet. Or maybe it’s Baby It’s You.
I just watched Baby It’s You (’83) for the first time and I have no idea how I missed it. I thought I saw every ‘80s high school movie during the ‘80s. I thought I saw every John Sayles movie, at least during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Not this one. I wish I had. It’s wonderful.
It’s set in the ‘60s and it’s centered not on a gaggle of Porky’s-esque boys, as per usual, but on one very smart girl, Jill, played, with so much charm she just about twinkles, by a young Rosanna Arquette. She reminded me of the young Nicolas Cage of Valley Girl, another electric performance from 1983 you watch thinking damn, this kid is going places.
Watching Baby It’s You I realized I was madly in love with Rosanna Arquette. I don’t mean then, though then, too, but now, I mean I’m currently madly in love with early ‘80s Rosanna Arquette, and here I’d completely forgotten about it. About her.
This is of course due to After Hours, my being in love with Rosanna Arquette, a film I’ve seen so many times the wheels have come off. So to speak. She may be a bit nuts in After Hours, but it’s an electric, twinkling nuts, and who can resist that? Not Griffin Dunne, and not me.
Speaking of Dunne, he produced Baby It’s You with Amy Robinson, who also wrote the story Sayles spun the script from. Robinson would go on to produce After Hours and many other films. Dunne would continue being consistently awesome. Which I say because I am also in love with young Griffin Dunne, primarily because of An American Werewolf in London. Even with his face all slashed to pieces, you want to give the guy a hug.
But so anyway, Baby It’s You, Rosanna Arquette as Jill, the smart girl in a ‘60s New Jersey high school, who’s pursued by an outrageously slick Italian guy, not so bright, but quite the personality, who calls himself Sheik and is played by Vincent Spano. She plays hard to get—but not too hard. He takes her on a weird date to a seedy bar, she talks about him with her friends like she’s not into him, it’s basic teenager stuff, two kids from different sides of the tracks, but handled so well by Sayles both as writer and director you forget you’ve seen these scenes before.
Then something strange happens. A whole bunch of drama goes down, still the kind you expect, and it happens in much the way you expect it to happen, only then there’s this fade-out, and we’re only maybe an hour into the movie, and I thought, wait, all the beats in this kind of movie have been covered—where are they going next?
I didn’t know.
What a nice feeling, not knowing. Not just not knowing in what way what’s going to happen next will happen next, but not knowing what, at all, is going to happen next. Without giving anything too surprising away, what happens next is Jill goes to college. So it’s a high school movie and then it’s a college movie, it’s both, and it’s both in a way one never sees. And it’s about a girl, a girl who, again, without giving things away, isn’t defined by a boy. It’s about a girl learning who she is and what she wants, and maybe not knowing for sure by the end, but knowing something. Knowing enough. Enough to move on to the next stage, let’s say.
In college, Jill finds that she isn’t the person she thought she was. She doesn’t fit in any more. The ’60s have arrived, the times they are a changin’, she might be smart, smart enought to attend Sarah Lawrence, but culturally she’s just a kid from New Jersey. Nobody understands her. Well, maybe one person. Maybe Sheik does. He took off to Florida to become the next Frank Sinatra. Maybe she should visit?
Baby It’s You is a movie filled with beautiful filmmaking (it’s shot by cinematography master Michael Ballhaus), which is why it’s a shame nobody talkes about Sayles anymore. There are a few shots that stand out, whose framing cries out to be noticed, like one where Jill and Sheik are framed in the reflection of a window, and appear to be facing the same direction when in fact they’re standing face to face, and it takes almost the whole scene just to figure out who’s being reflected and where they must be standing. But mostly Sayles stays in the background. Mostly his framing doesn’t jump out at you, it’s just calmly thoughtful and meaningful in a way so few directors bother to think about anymore.
This was Sayles’s first studio picture. He didn’t love the experience. Paramount imagined they were getting a sexy high school comedy ala Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Baby It’s You has a lot of humor, but it’s not a comedy. It’s a thoughtful coming-of-age story, and rare in Hollywood for being about a girl. Sayles made it because, like his debut film, Return of the Secaucus 7, it was a movie no one else was making. It was a movie he wanted to see.
Maybe Sayles isn’t so forgotten. I hope not. We need more filmmakers like him. And more movies like Baby It’s You.