Babysitter, The (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
“The Babysitter,” directed by McG and based on the screenplay by Brian Duffield, is particularly difficult for me to review because I acknowledge that it offers a few laughs, the two leading performances are highly watchable, and the premise involving a preteen’s discovery that his babysitter is actually a part of a Satanic cult is so wild, I was excited how the story is going to take shape. But without a shadow of doubt, the film belongs under the category of children-in-danger movies, and it is most unfortunate that it keeps the protagonist under constant torment—so constant that right from the opening scene this boy is already being terrorized at school.
Children-in-peril pictures can work given a sharp, intelligent writing that functions as commentary. For example, it can tackle the subject of young people being so sheltered that modern parenting is essentially training future adults to constantly demand being in a safe space. In my opinion, children-in-peril movies rarely work as a straightforward horror-thriller, or even as a horror-comedy, because there is a tendency toward fetishizing not only the violence or gore but also our expectation that a child must not be harmed or mutilated in any way. In other words, films that generate thrills solely through the guise of the audience not wanting to a child being hurt can be considered as lowest hanging fruit.
And so throughout the film, I constantly had to ask myself what the material is saying behind the superficial entertainment. I found none. I suppose one can claim that the story is about a twelve-year-old, who is pretty much afraid of everything, being forced to to find courage in himself to stand up against bullies. But that is a stretch because the villains in the film, members of the Satanic cult (Robbie Amell, Hana Mae Lee, Bella Thorne, Andrew Bachelor), are purposefully written as walking stereotypes.
In real life, bullies are more than archetypes and in order for the film to have meaning beyond the images on screen, the writing must command depth and subtlety. Those who dare to compare this film, for example, to Joss Whedon’s writing (“The Cabin in the Woods,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel”) clearly have little to no understanding about why Whedon’s works possess cultural relevance. They aren’t just post-modern, have quirky premises, or tapping into zeitgeist. They are genuinely saying something beyond what we see and experience on screen. These works care about teenagers and young adults.
It is too bad because I really enjoyed the central performances here. Samara Weaving as Bee the babysitter reminded me at times of Margot Robbie’s ability to go from warmly intrigued to sexually electric, while Judah Lewis as Cole the fearful adolescent brought back flashes of Corey Haim in the underrated 1986 coming-of-age picture “Lucas.” A standout scene in the picture is a dramatic moment when Cole reveals to Bee that he feels such a weirdo at times that, essentially, he feels helpless in his own skin. This is such a moving scene that I wished the movie had been about the bond between the sitter and the preteen, completely throwing out the wacky chases, over-the-top gore, and absurd resolution.
The horror-comedy will certainly entertain some, but those looking for a more substantial story and character development with smart decisions throughout are best advised to stay away. And because of the title, it must be stated outright that “The Babysitter” is not at all a successful throwback to late-‘70s and ’80s slashers. There is no suspense to be had here.
DUFF, The (2015)
★★ / ★★★★
Bianca (Mae Whitman) is informed by a childhood friend, Wesley (Robbie Amell), now a jock and the most popular boy in school, that out of her group of friends, she is considered to be “The DUFF,” acronym for the designated ugly fat friend. A classic symptom: The boys approaching her and asking about Casey (Bianca A. Santos) and Jess (Styler Samuels), both beautiful and talented in different ways. In order to prove that she is not a DUFF, Bianca separates herself from her two best friends to go after Toby (Nick Eversman), a classmate she has had her eye on for some time.
Based on the novel by Kody Kiplinger and screenplay by Josh A.Cagan, “The DUFF,” is supposed to empower high school students who feel like they are not beautiful on the outside, but the film is so heavy-handed with its messages that it comes across rather disingenuous or fake. It does not help that the protagonist has a proclivity toward whining and moping around when she does not get her way so it makes it difficult to root for her. Regardless, the material has a few sweet moments and clever lines of dialogue to make a tolerable final product.
The heart of the picture is the friendship between Bianca and Wesley. Although they do not look like high school students at all, Whitman and Amell do share some chemistry so their characters’ banters are convincingly fun and flirtatious. The problem with their relationship is not where it is heading but the details of their getting to know one another. Observe the scene where Bianca learns a little bit about Wesley’s home life. It feels like from a completely different movie; the sudden shift in tone made me wonder if we are supposed to like Wesley more just because of issues at home. Even if that isn’t the case, that piece of information is never again brought up for further elaboration.
That is the main problem in the film: its annoying habit of introducing strands that never come into fruition. Another example: After Bianca gets into a fight with her best friends, we rarely hear from them again until it is time to reconcile. The most successful and memorable movies for teenagers have effortless, effervescent flow: we really feel like we are walking in the shoes of the characters we are supposed to relate with. Here, I always felt like I was an observer, only occasionally relating with the protagonist.
The adults at school (Ken Jeong, Romany Malco) are written as clichés in that they are unable to relate with the young people they see every day. We never get the impression that they genuinely care about their students. It does not make any sense. Worse, the student-teacher relationship likens that of those found on television sitcoms doomed to be cancelled mid-season. Do not get me started on the so-called relationship between Bianca and her mother (Allison Janney). Human relationships are one-dimensional here.
Directed by Ari Sandel, “The DUFF” is portraying edge rather than being edgy. If one looks back to teen movie classics like John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club,” Amy Heckerling’s “Clueless” and Mark Waters’ “Mean Girls,” they dance to their own grooves. They take many risks that pay off. In this film, the writing is nothing special, often safe, simply recycling ideas from its inspirations.