Between FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH and PRIVATE SCHOOL, Phoebe Cates steamed up the small screen in the little-seen made-for-TV movie BABY SISTER, out on DVD from Scorpion Releasing.
Nineteen-year-old Annie (Phoebe Cates, GREMLINS) drops out of college and hops a bus to Los Angeles to stay with her gallery owner sister Marsha (Pamela Bellwood, TV’s DYNASTY) who has just moved in with her doctor boyfriend David (Ted Wass, SHEENA: QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE). Annie’s and Marsha’s father Tom (“special guest” Efrem Zimbalist Jr., WAIT UNTIL DARK) is of course disappointed in Annie’s decision, but Annie is determined to get a job and her own place to live. Annie hits the streets looking for a job but discovers that she is incredibly unqualified for anything, so David – who is also being pressured by Marsha to use her father’s social pull to advance his career – gives her a job as a receptionist at the clinic. The growing distance between David and Marsha – whose time is taken up by organizing her first big gallery show – and Annie’s strained relationship with her father soon find the two in each other’s arms; but can Annie and David risk hurting Marsha to be happy.
BABY SISTER isn’t really cult or “drive-in” territory but it’s so indelibly “1980s” in its display of gratuitous Phoebe Cates in tube tops, short skirts, spandex, and steam room towels; and that’s mainly the point since the story is a rather muddled and unfocused. The setup is contains the most sweltering I’ve seen outside of a Tennessee Williams play, with Annie turning heads everywhere as if there are no other hot women in this pre-silicone Los Angeles (in contrast, the filmmakers try to make Bellwood look plainer by pulling her hair back and having her wear little make-up for most scenes and then exaggerating her hair and make-up for the party and gallery opening sequences). In a bit of role reversal, David is cast as the “neglected wife” to the busy and harried Marsha, who embodies the other kind of “daddy’s girl” who is career-minded while Annie takes after her late mother (whose death has left Annie with emotional scars). From the start, he seems to be the one sending mixed messages to Annie with some flirtation that crosses the line from self-deprecation to complement-seeking. Rather than focus on developing the reasons for their attraction, the film takes shortcuts with some cliché situations: their first kiss follows the tragic aftermath of a troubled teen’s overdose that leaves both shaken, and they consummate their affair after watching a ballet performance of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” (which Marsha missed and sent Annie in her place). Similarly, the interjection of the drug pusher character Fancher (Thomas Duffy, DEATH WISH II) into the scenario feels more like a late addition to the script to speed up the film’s resolution and add some action (rather than suspense since you pretty much can guess how he’ll figure into the climax in his very first of his two scenes). The heart of the drama really seems to lie with the family (between the sisters, as well as Annie and her father) – and it is in these scenes where the acting is most impressive – David functions more as loving father figure who mends the fractured family (he even gets to trump Annie’s attempt at a noble act with one of his own at the end).
The performances of Wass, Bellwood and Zimbalist are all good despite some of the cliché dramatics they have to embody; but the camera is in love with Cates and she is a bit more successful at playing her character freshly. NURSE SHERRI’s Jill Jacobson – who also had a stint on the primetime soap FALCON CREST – plays Marsha’s gallery partner but has so little to do that it is possible that her scenes may have been cut down or her character was left over from a cut-down script (similarly, we never learn whether Mrs. Strauss [Virginia Kiser, POLTERGEIST] is supposed to be Tom’s secretary, girlfriend, or a close family friend even though she seems to be the girls’ stepmother). The film was shot by Isidore Mankofsky whose CV includes some interesting early titles like WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS, HOMEBODIES, and SCREAM BLACULA, SCREAM as well as a couple major mainstream pics like THE MUPPET MOVIE, THE JAZZ SINGER, and SOMEWHERE IN TIME, but was composed primarily of TV movies and a handful of TV series episodes. Fred Karlin’s score consists mainly of orchestral slower tempo variations on the Linda Rondstadt-esque theme song “When It Gets Too Hot”. In retrospect, the film’s style is laughably cliché with shots of lovers silhouetted against the sunset, star filters during the ballet scene, the slow push-in of the camera whenever Annie or Marsha recall their mother’s death in monologue, and the two dissolve-heavy love scenes (both scored with the film’s other vocal “Love Can” and seeming more monotonous because the scenes happen about five minutes apart, although – to be fair – there was probably a commercial interruption following the first one so it might have seemed like more time had passed).
Scorpion Releasing’s single-layer DVD features a progressive fullscreen transfer. The quality is fine for its eighties TV photography and the older video master. It’s certainly no worse than how it probably looked when it was first shown on television (I didn’t catch this one until a late night airing in the nineties). The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio is in fine condition (with some nice bass during the opening and closing renditions of the theme song). The static main menu screen only has a play option, and there are no special features or Scorpion Releasing trailers. As with all other ITV-licensed titles from Scorpion (including Rank and ITC catalogue releases), BABY SISTER is encoded for Region 1 only. (Eric Cotenas)
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