'Be My Baby': Munich Review

Be My Baby Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Munich Film Fest

Be My Baby Still - H 2014

An impressively written, tonally complex work almost posing as light entertainment.

Christina Grosse and Carina Kuehne star as a mother and her teenage daughter with Down syndrome in this lighthearted yet complex drama from German director Christina Schiewe.

Tackling the difficult subject of pregnancy in a girl with Down syndrome with surprising emotional clarity — and without sacrificing much of the issue's complexity — Be My Baby is a promising first feature from writer-director Christina Schiewe. The film's appeal doesn't lie in its visual sophistication, of which there is very little, but rather in its choice of topic and the almost startlingly straightforward way in which it presents its characters and their conundrums. As such, this gentle-natured conversation starter, which shares a few surface similarities with recent Canadian festival favorite Gabrielle, should see some festival action on the heels of its premiere at the Munich Film Fest, where it deservedly won best screenplay.

The free-spirited, 18-year-old Nicole Moser (non-professional Carina Kuehne) has Down syndrome and works in a workshop that employs handicapped people in a sheltered environment. Her mother, Monique (Christina Grosse), has to be reminded, mostly by Nicole, that her daughter is not a kid anymore, though she does need more looking after than most young adults (precisely the same problem the title character in Gabrielle faces).

Nicole has had an almost lifelong crush on her milquetoast but otherwise friendly teen neighbor, Nick (Florian Appelius), whom she's known since childhood. Monique, who has to work a lot to make ends meet and is thus often away, is happy to see the two still spending time together, even if Nick's strict parents (the characters closest to caricatures in the film) are increasingly against the idea.

Things get complicated when Nicole's childhood wish of being impregnated by Nick comes true after she practically forces him to sleep with her. However, rather than anything violent, Schiewe lets the scene play out in a mostly innocent and almost playful way, with Nicole not letting Nick off the hook until she gets what she wants — which she is wont to do — and the meek virgin giving in as Nicole's pressure and his teenage curiosity about sex finally get the better of him.

The film contrasts Nicole's carefree attitude toward everything, including sex and her pregnancy, with her single mother's much more problem-plagued attempt at reconstructing a love life of her own. At her evening classes, the always-busy Monique cozies up to her handsome professor, Olaf (Holger Stockhaus), whom she starts taking home. But when she realizes Nicole is starting to like him too, she pushes Olaf away, worried her daughter might soon think he's a fixed part of the family instead of a fling that may or may not lead to more. By implicitly contrasting Monique's need for companionship and sexual intimacy with that of her grown daughter's, the film gently teases out what some might describe as either a maternal paradox or maternal hypocrisy, as she protectively denies her child what she herself craves.

An unfortunate tendency to bluntly foreshadow the film's pregnancy aside, Schiewe lets audiences connect the dots and ask the questions about what's going on in the lives of these characters, who all display recognizable human behavior and who find themselves in very difficult situations with no one really at fault. When told that a child of a person with Down syndrome has a risk of being handicapped, and that it's therefore not a good idea for her to have babies, Nicole insightfully asks why she would have the right to live if a baby just like her isn't welcome?

Despite the many difficult questions at the heart of the material, tonally the story stays surprisingly light with numerous moments of humor, including some acid-tongued comebacks from Nicole's grandmother, Inge (the scene-stealing Gitta Schweighoefer). Schweighoefer, the mother of one of Germany's most popular comic actors, Matthias Schweighoefer, is charismatic and convincing, as is Grosse as Nicole's mother, torn between propriety and wanting what's best for daughter. In a very tricky role, Appelius finds exactly the right balance for his character, ensuring his humanity peeps out from behind his clueless-teenager facade.

As if to echo the film's smooth tonal shifts, the film's score is wide-ranging, adapting itself to the emotional undercurrents of each new scene, from comic to dramatic and everything in between.

Production companies: Zum Goldenen Lamm Filmproduktion, ZDF
Cast: Carina Kuehne, Christina Grosse, Holger Stockhaus, Gitta Schweighoefer, Florian Appelius, Sos Petrosyan
Director: Christina Schiewe
Screenwriters: Christina Schiewe, Petra Brix
Producers: Ruediger Heinze, Stefan Sporbert
Director of photography: Julia Baumann
Production designer: Pierre Brayard
Costume designer: Tanja Gierich, Ule Barcelos
Editor: Dorothee Broeckelmann
No rating, 109 minutes