Opening with a seemingly innocuous scene, where a group of teens hang out on benches smoking and listen to music, the early imagery in Jessie Levandov’s coming-of-age short Baby immediately conjure assumptions about how these individuals must be somehow “tougher“ than your average American. It’s stereotypes and preconceived notions like these that Levandov is counting on. A tale of queer first love and the hurdles that young adults must overcome, Levandov’s eight-minute short is a surprisingly touching film that amplifies the quiet moments in an otherwise noisy urban jungle. More than just an ode to budding romance, Baby is a love letter to New York City and poetically confronts themes of LGBTQ identity and toxic masculinity with a delicate hand.
Capturing the youth culture in the city and drawing attention to the little details that make her characters so specific to it, Baby introduces us to the world of Ali, a Dominican-American teenager from the Bronx. Spending his Saturday afternoon focused on his romantic goals, as we follow our besotted protagonist Levandov’s cinéma vérité style makes his journey that much more compelling, crafting a believable portrait of a young person coming into their queerness for the first time. Of course, this is a realization that the viewer won’t have until the very end of the film, as Levandov works to build up our preconceptions as we observe how Ali is expected to behave first.
“Baby engages themes of toxic masculinity from my perspective as a queer femme”
While the interactions that Ali has with his barber and a deli clerk seem harmless on the surface, their repercussions become apparent nonetheless. As we begin to realize that Ali has been portraying a more masculine version of himself to meet the status quo, his fearlessness to seek out love feels even more empowering. Frankly, it was hard not to break into a toothy smile from the sheer joy of Ali’s reciprocated love on the basketball court. Call me a romantic, but I very nearly swooned!
“Baby engages themes of toxic masculinity from my perspective as a queer femme,” Levandov explains as we discuss the aims of her film. “It is an ode to the youth I’ve taught. It is an ode to how queer folks have to navigate shame while coming into our queerness and desire, clawing our way out of harmful narratives that prevent us from being our most authentic selves”.
“It is an ode to all queer youth, past, present and future, who seek joy in a world that tells us in so many ways that we don’t belong”, Levandov adds. “Our stories don’t always end in a cinematic triumph – it’s often the quiet victory of holding a hand, or playing a game of basketball, that carves out the space for intimacy, tenderness and joy in our lives. I wanted to convey a quiet, personal victory – and show through this quiet story, how powerful one moment can be, when we are able to choose ourselves and connection with people we love.”
“I wanted to tell a tender, queer coming-of-age love story that brings you into the world of this particular group of young folks”
Levandov taught filmmaking in New York City public high schools for almost a decade. Baby was therefore inspired by, and produced in collaboration with Levandov’s high school students during her final months as a teacher. “I adore teenagers, I think they’re brilliant”, she declares as we discuss the influences behind her filmmaking. “They have so much to say, and it’s such a specific and tender time in one’s life where you’re really trying to figure out how to carve out space for yourself in order to be who you are. I wanted to tell a tender, queer coming-of-age love story that brings you into the world of this particular group of young folks in New York City”.
Performed by a cast of non-actors, Levandov got former students, and friends of former students, to play the characters in Baby. To ensure her story felt genuine, the filmmaker wrote a script with action, beats and loose dialogue, so her actors could improvise and inject a bit of themselves into their roles. The effect is a low key, extremely authentic story that feels believable in a truly tangible way. This level of realism, coupled with her aforementioned use of cinéma vérité, also helps to bring gravity to some of the heavy subject matter in Baby.
Produced by radical feminist film studio Mala Forever, to which Levandov is a co-founder and director, Baby was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Short Film at Outfest and we are very excited to have it on Short of the Week!