Baby Works His Way Out of a Corner


“Stop being a baby.”

From the outset, Marcelo Caetano’s Baby (2024) stacks the odds against itself with a whopping three examples of overused cinematic tropes. There’s the guy who gets out of jail and has to decide between a life of crime or a more honest path, the gay May-December coming-of-age romance and the use of the nickname Baby, symbolising its protagonist’s loss of innocence (think: Dirty Dancing [Emile Ardolino, 1987] or Baby Driver [Edgar Wright, 2017]). Despite all this familiarity, some uneven performances and minor tone problems, Caetano keeps things afloat.

While films like Buffalo 66 (Vincent Gallo, 1998) and Straight Time (Ulu Grosbard, 1978) start with a serious, sombre tone when the lead gets out of prison, Caetano opts for a lively ritual with the prison band playing a ceremonious march. It’s a playful and stylish way to introduce Wellington (João Pedro Mariano), fresh out of lockup but already in a jam: his parents have left town without leaving a forwarding address. Without an adult guardian, he’ll probably have to stay connected to the juvenile detention system. With only a hand-me-down jacket from a neighbour, he’s back on the streets.

As Wellington wanders around without nowhere to go, Bruno Prado and Caê Rolfsen’s nervy and percussive score keeps it urgent. There’s a haunting moment as he stands outside a hair salon in the rain. The women inside notice him and appear concerned and Caetano flips the camera back on Wellington and zooms in slowly, revealing a face that says, “I’ll do anything to survive out here.” Soon he reunites with a group of streetwise vogue queens and shacks up with Ronald (Ricardo Teodoro), a seasoned hustler in his early 40s.

Wellington and Renaldo’s union has multiple blurred lines — sometimes they’re boyfriends, sometimes Renaldo is Wellington’s father figure-ish pimp, and sometimes they’re just running drug deals together. This complicated relationship takes up the bulk of the second act, and since we can see the layers of toxicity built into it, it makes for pretty riveting cinema as the power dynamics between the two grow increasingly chaotic.

Caetano has a keen eye for portraying different sub-communities within the broader queer scene and sometimes does it with a sense of humour. A smash cut emphasising the contrast between Wellington’s super-fun vogue friends and the most corny and mainstream gay club gets the film’s biggest laugh.

Sex work is one of the topics du jour in contemporary queer cinema, and Wellington’s experience with clients pretty much mirrors that of the main character in Sebastian (2024), Mikko Mäkelä’s Sundance-acclaimed drama about a writer using the profession as material for his next book. Both films explore the initial feeling of empowerment that comes with the job, the allure of taking on another persona and the various experiences one can have, from unexpectedly intimate to extremely dangerous.

Sebastian’s a tighter and more polished film, but Baby offers a more intersectional and perhaps harsher representation of sex work — Wellington is an unhoused teenager in Sao Paolo and already in the justice system. In other words, he’s doing it as a means to survive, not going method as a writer and choosing the profession as a means for creative inspiration. That’s not a dig on Mäkelä’s film in any way, nor a demand for all sex work films to represent the identity markers of every sex worker — sometimes pretty white privileged twinks get caught up in the game too. 

Despite losing a bit of momentum in the third act as Wellington attempts to track down his real family, Caetano closes with an honest and effective ending. It may not be particularly surprising, but it still feels right for Baby