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Baby Money
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by Jay Seaver

"Reminder: Most people are not good criminals at all."
4 stars

SCREENED VIA THE 2021 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Of all the different ways one can make a crime movie, there is probably none more difficult to get right than straight "dumb crime" - that is to say, one which reflects that few crimes (beyond white-collar frauds that are seldom investigated much less prosecuted) are actually committed by people who are actually good at it. There are moments when one wants "Baby Money" to have a clever twist or characters colorful enough to make for black comedy, but it manages the trickier route of getting suspense from its characters being enough out of their depth to be unpredictable but not random.

Minny (Danay Garcia) isn't dumb herself; she's just had an unexpected pregnancy put a real hitch into her job as an exotic dancer. Her boyfriend Gil (Michael Drayer) has a line on a job that can earn them some quick cash: He'll serve as lookout while Tony (Travis Hammer) and Dom (Joey Kern) break into a house to retrieve a purple box, with Minny driving; a call on the burner phone at 4AM will say what to do. Things naturally go completely sideways, with Minny fleeing the scene as the police arrive and the home invaders taking refuge in an empty house - at least, until Heidi (Taja V. Simpson) and her autistic son Chris (Vernon Taylor III) arrive home.

The typical caper tends to go sideways because of a hidden flaw in the plan - somebody can't be trusted, or there's some unexpected security measure - and while that is kind of the case here, it's not like anything unlikely happens. Instead, writers Mikhail Bassilli and MJ Palo build the bulk of the movie on fight-or-flight responses, and the irony is that most of the time, the characters are probably better off that way; even they are as relatively bright as Minny and Heidi seem, they misread the situation and make bad decisions, and the neat trick the movie pulls off is that characters always seem to panic in the way that makes the most sense in the moment. It makes a crime into a chaotic combination of understandable actions.

There's something interesting going on underneath the criminal checkers match, though: The filmmakers (with Bassilli and Luc Walpoth directing) give the audience a sense of Minny and Gil as a couple right away, showing that they're not necessarily a perfect match but generally have the best interests of each other and their unborn child at heart, but they're separated not long after, and for all that Gil is the one with the gun through much of the movie, he is going to have to depend on Minny to rescue him, and that's a big part of what's fun to watch. Danay Garcia brings the energy of Minny's impending motherhood to every situation - tense body language to show just how nervous she is even when a bit of steel breaks through because there's no not doing it. Michael Drayer, on the other hand, is almost comically frazzled, with Gil probably not ready for either violent crime or fatherhood, trying to be the sane one despite not knowing what's going on, and Drayer is good at making Gil pouty later on without that feeling like it undermines the crime.

Meanwhile, Taja V. Simpson is doing good work as well. It's a bit of a cheat or a shortcut that the crew holes up in the home of the nurse-practitioner performing Minny's sonogram in the first scene, but it gives the audience a baseline for her that is not "inevitable hostage". The filmmakers set up an impressive amount of chaos early on, dropping potential directions they could go and having folks make unusual-enough choices that little ever seems off the table. The clock moves forward relentlessly even when both Minny and Gil seem to be in holding patterns, and the final act is kind of a beautiful mess, as the criminals who know what they're doing act like it and the people who don't flail.

It is, perhaps, not pure dumb crime (and I suspect that its makers would bristle at that description), but it's a more than fair thriller which likely has a pretty solid idea of how the average person might do in this situation and still makes it fairly entertaining.

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originally posted: 08/17/21 10:32:27
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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