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During an early moment in director Curtis Vowell’s very enjoyable and sassy New Zealand comedy Baby Done, the protagonist, Zoe (Rose Matafeo), articulates her mixed feelings towards bringing another life into this world. “I want to have a baby,” she says, “I just don’t want to turn into a mum.”
The Taika Waititi-produced film is not about the fear of being a bad parent, or even of being a parent per se, but rather how one’s existence changes when a little person emerges – the start of the bub’s life inevitably signalling the end of certain aspects of the parent’s.
This of course requires kissing certain aspirations goodbye, or at least realigning expectations – which, for Zoe, an arborist, means ditching her plans to win a national tree-climbing competition: not exactly a widely relatable sacrifice, but each to their own. The film opens with her literally up a tree, before showing Zoe figuratively crashing down to earth in a medical clinic, when she incredulously receives a positive result on a pregnancy test.
More or less in a state of denial, Zoe initially conceals the news from her partner, Tim (Matthew Lewis), who is also an arborist – because the couple that chop down trees together … stays together? They both consider themselves adventurers and are wary about living life according to the conventional trajectory. The title is dropped at a baby shower where, surrounded by people who have babies, are babies, or are pregnant, Zoe summarises that aforementioned trajectory in only four words: “Married, house, baby, done.”
The scope of the film spans the journey from pregnancy to birth. For a fun companion piece picking up where it left off, with a not dissimilar outlook, viewers can go back across the Tasman and watch ABC’s The Letdown, which explores what comes after birth: ie, sleep deprivation, awkward social encounters and things that happen when you sleep in a car on a drug dealer’s turf.
Baby Done’s badinage-filled script, written by Sophie Henderson, inflates small moments into feelings and situations that mean more than what is spoken, sometimes in subtle ways. Instead of directly stating that Tim is afraid to be a father, for instance, Henderson has him greeting another person’s toddler with an ear-to-ear Cheshire grin on his face, only for the kid to respond by bursting into tears. We’ve all been there, right, helpless in the face of infantile rejection?
Matafeo’s wonderful, compulsively affable performance is core to the film’s irresistible good naturedness: its spirit, pluck, bounce. You want to be her friend, and in a strange way you feel like you are her friend. She leans into you, invites you into her world, doing so in a way that seems almost able to read the audience’s responses in real time – like a chatty seatmate on a plane, who can judge the mood and is somebody you actually want to talk to.
Her chemistry with Lewis (contributing another thoroughly likable performance as an unremarkable, everyday sort of character) allows for a laid-back riffing. The pair’s generally moderate temperaments make their relative explosions of impatience and anxiety funnier than they might have been otherwise. It’s a good thing the writing, pacing and performances gel so well, because the film’s nondescript production values serve to emphasise them, pulling us into the characters’ lives without much showiness or flair.
Baby Done is sharper and pacier than Vowell’s previous feature, 2013’s Fantail: a scruffily textured drama about a young white petrol station attendant who believes she is Māori. To ratchet up dramatic stakes as the birth date approaches, Vowell and Henderson in Baby Done present a spin on the moth-eaten “will they or won’t they” question, in a lurch towards formula that represents the writing at its most irritatingly conventional.
Still, the film coasts along just fine, switching from comedy to drama swiftly thanks to humour that’s so invested in characters and feeling. The stakes are never high but you care for these people; you want them to be happy. Always there is lightness of touch, with many small situations triggering giggles and sometimes guffaws – from the appearance of Brian the “pregaphile” (Nic Sampson) to a confetti bomb detonation moment that well and truly tickled my ribs.
Baby Done is funny; it’s sweet; it means something. Most of all it’s charming.
• Baby Done opens in Australian and New Zealand cinemas on 22 October
Source: The Guardian
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