Desperation is one of the strongest emotions that film can evoke, in part because it has so many layers to it that beget dramatic possibilities. It’s an emotion that can range from quiet to loud, from small stakes to large ones, and its consequences can have both hilarious and deadly effects. At the core of BABY MONEY is desperation, with its ensemble of characters struggling through one long night to try and achieve the most favorable outcome for themselves and their loved ones, even if that ideal outcome eventually pares down to simply surviving until morning. Co-directors Mikhael Bassilli and Luc Walpoth, working from a script by Bassilli and MJ Palo, have an innate sense of how to keep these characters’ desperation alive throughout a 90-minute movie which makes BABY MONEY a consistently engaging watch. Unfortunately, those notes are struck so hard for so long that it begins to become more grating than enjoyable, and the bittersweet, downbeat crime tale they’re going for leaves the film feeling less satisfying than one would initially hope.
BABY MONEY begins incredibly strong, introducing Minny (Danay Garcia), a young woman who’s just discovered she’s pregnant by her boyfriend. As a kindly technician, Heidi (Taja V. Simpson), examines her via ultrasound, Minny breaks down, petrified at the reality that neither she nor her boyfriend have the finances to support a child. The movie then kicks into a brilliantly animated noir/comic-book-inspired main title, one that reveals that Minny is a stripper and has decided along with her boyfriend, Gil (Michael Drayer), that they’ll obtain the money for their impending child via illegal means. The movie picks up on the night Gil has arranged to invade the home of a local elderly man in order to steal an item that a fence will pay thousands for. As Gil and a couple other robbers — including the forceful Dom (Joey Kern) — start to carry out the heist, things go very wrong very fast, forcing Minnie to abscond with the crew’s getaway car. Meanwhile, Gil and a wounded Dom must take shelter in a nearby home after the police show up to the scene of the robbery — a home that just happens to be the residence of Heidi, who lives there with her son, Chris (Vernon Taylor III), who lives with cerebral palsy.
From there, BABY MONEY follows the various groupings of characters as they attempt to handle the increasingly complicated circumstances they’ve found themselves in, and its these dilemmas that carry the movie’s momentum forward for most of its runtime. Bassilli and Palo aren’t very forthcoming about most of the characters’ backgrounds — the ones most fleshed out are the hostages Heidi and Chris — and as such it’s left to the actors to make the immediacy of the situation the main attraction. For the most part, they do, and there are a lot of hilarious Coen-Brothers-by-way-of-Elmore-Leonard moments where these people lose themselves in their neuroses, exacerbated by attempting to find the best and most logical way out of the problem. One can feel the presence of the screenwriters through these scenes as the characters dismiss potential solution after solution, and it’s a welcome feeling, implying that the audience is in intelligent and careful hands.
Sadly, that faith ends up being misplaced, as BABY MONEY eventually grows as confused and lost as its characters do. For one thing, the vibrant, dynamic main title becomes something of an albatross to the movie, promising a wild ride that never really occurs. For another, the number of second guesses made and dead ends the characters encounter start to manifest themselves narratively as well, making what earlier was a movie that seemed like a fun and unique puzzle to solve more of a maze with no exit. The strong sense of desperation that kicked off the story is extended for so long that it begins to grate, and the movie loses so much steam that its climax isn’t able to provide a sense of catharsis, upbeat or not. Part of the problem is Bassilli and Palo’s insistence on keeping so much information off screen—it’s never revealed who Gil and the crew were stealing for, let alone what exactly it was they stole, for instance, and that glaring MacGuffin along with too much of a remove from the characters leaves the final act of the film feeling hollow. The cast become caught in a trap laid by the filmmakers, where their performances conceal too much beyond their immediate problem at hand. The most egregious example of this is Minny and Gil’s relationship, as it’s called into question as soon as she decides to take off without him when the initial heist goes bad. Minny struggles with her devotion to Gil throughout the movie, leaving their pairing feeling doomed to the audience even though the script seems to want to highlight how much she loves him, as explicitly stated by Heidi at one point. The film keeps moving the goalposts for the characters so often that it goes too far, with Minny eventually stating that she and Gil should run away without the money, thereby invalidating the original premise and even the movie’s title. It’s not like such a subversion couldn’t work, but that the path to such developments isn’t laid out properly, leaving them feeling awkward instead of compelling.
While it’s a bummer that BABY MONEY fails to stick the landing, the movie is nonetheless a promising debut feature for Bassilli and Walpoth. They have a clear knack for finding the rhythms of individual scenes, and an ability to capture tension and humor that could lead to greater things in the future. Like too many debut films these days, BABY MONEY suffers from trying to do too much too quickly, the film attempting to be a pulpy genre exercise, a dark comedy, and a gritty drama all at once. This is likely because the prospect of getting a feature made and distributed in an increasingly insular industry creates its own sense of desperation, making first-time filmmakers such as Bassilli and Walpoth feel obligated to try and show off as much as they can. As BABY MONEY demonstrates, things done under desperation don’t often pan out, so it’s fortunate that the film at least has enough glimmers of promise to make the effort worthwhile.