When teenage Shirley (Katherine Waterston) realizes that she can get hefty cash bonuses from Mike (John Leguizamo), for whom she babysits and with whom she has fallen into an affair, she decides to make things really pay off. She enlists the aid of best friend Melissa (Lauren Birkell), who is only too happy to service Jerry (Denis O’Hare) and sundry other of Mike’s eager friends. Soon a real going concern is in progress, as Shirley convinces her stepsisters to come aboard, with Shirley collecting 20% as “madam” for every assignation.
Writer-director David Ross has a sneaky-snarky—but not really that original—premise for The Babysitters, which offers some subversive, low-grade diversion in its first half. But ultimately, it’s not all that much fun, as his technique has a heavy-spiritedness, wed to a seriously questionable view of female behavior. There’s little real wit here and, as far as teen-chick antics go, it’s definitely no Heathers or Clueless, not even Cruel Intentions. As things turn serious and the atmosphere of misogynistic exploitation becomes heavier with the girls tearfully sinking into drugs and beginning to question their choices, the film recalls the old sex-sin-and-redemption Cecil B. DeMille epics with their need to have it both ways: luridly entertaining licentiousness plus the moral price the characters—and the audience—must pay for their sinful enjoyment. And it is then that you truly start to question the filmmaker’s motives. The Babysitters also evokes a dreary plethora of mediocre Lifetime movies, to be perhaps enjoyed when there’s absolutely nothing else on the tube, with Zinfandel and cat in hand.
Ross has done himself no favors with his casting, either. Waterston is neither compelling nor charismatic enough, having inherited a certain stolidity from her papa, Sam. Despite Shirley’s obvious sexuality and venality, she walks robotically through the film, and one wonders if this blank-canvas affectlessness was imposed on her by her director. In the right role, Leguizamo can be effective, but as a married (to a wasted Cynthia Nixon) ad executive, he struggles to convey uptight suburban angst and, given his familiar, usually outrageous onscreen and stage persona, his underage diddling here presents little shock value. The rest of the actors don’t bring much fun to the proceedings, although the rambunctious, almost absurdly diminutive Birkell certainly gives it the old high-school try. She steals scenes from Waterston, but it’s a peculiarly paltry victory.