The greatest movie romances are the unhappy ones.
Sure, rom-coms are fun, but watch too many of them and you can start to feel a little sick from all the sugar. (Make too many of them — like Meg Ryan or Hugh Grant — and you may feel your career slipping away.)
But think of the love stories that last. “Gone With the Wind” and “Now, Voyager.” “Titanic” and “The Way We Were.” “Annie Hall” and “Reds.” There’s not one that ends happily.
And probably one of the unhappiest — and, hands down, certainly the most Jersey — is “Baby It’s You.”
Directed and written by Hoboken-based John Sayles, it was filmed 40 years ago and shot all over the state — Trenton, Cliffside Park, Asbury Park, Belleville, Fort Lee, Hoboken, Jersey City, Lawrenceville, Newark, Spring Lake, Union City and Wall’s Roadside Diner. (I’m sure imdb.com missed a few locations, too.)
There is one brief trip to sunny Florida, but otherwise the film stays Garden State-bound. Even when the heroine goes off to college, she doesn’t go far; she’s supposed to be at Sarah Lawrence, but doubling for the Seven Sisters school is the old East Orange campus of Upsala College.
Still not Jersey enough for you? The story was based on the teenage years of producer Amy Robinson, who grew up in Trenton (and knows enough to have a character reference “tomato pies”). The late, great Frank Vincent of Nutley shows up in a cameo as a lounge singer. And the soundtrack features five classic Bruce Springsteen songs — the first time his music was used in a movie.
But what make “Baby It’s You” really worth rediscovering, all these years later, isn’t just the local connections. It’s that its unhappy-ending story isn’t afraid to revolve around unlikable characters — or let them behave in embarrassing or even horrible ways — in order to get across something honest, and real, about life.
Set in 1966, the story is told through the eyes of Jill Rosen, played by Rosanna Arquette. A Trenton high school senior, she is pretty, popular, upper-class and a virgin, a doctor’s daughter who — one friend complains — has everything.
Everything, that is, except experience in handling somebody like Sheik.
That’s what he calls himself, anyway. And, as played by Vincent Spano, he is clearly bad news. Kicked out of Catholic school, he is currently attending Jill’s public high. Flirty, foul-mouthed, blue-collar and a bit of a hood, he is exactly the sort of bad boy everyone tells Jill to avoid.
Of course they fall for each other almost immediately, and hard.
That opposites attract is nothing new, especially in the movies, where audiences are used to rooting for people like Jill and Sheik to work it out. What’s daring about “Baby It’s You,” though, is that it never asks us to. In fact, it makes it clear, early on, that their staying together would be a disaster.
Jill has been so pampered, so protected, she doesn’t know who she is. Just watch her, when she gets to college, clumsily trying out various personas — playing the loud Jersey Girl at parties, switching awkwardly between preppie sweaters and hippie outfits at the dorm. (Although she doesn’t know it yet, it’s painfully clear her dream of becoming a great actress will never be more than that, either.)
Sheik, meanwhile, is a bit of a spoiled prince, too, babied by his doting mother. But then his father fires off threats and insults from his plastic slip-covered throne, sending Sheik into a rage. And although Sheik escapes every night, looking for fun, or trouble, lately he has been having trouble telling the two apart — or taking no for an answer, especially from teachers, cops or his new girlfriend.
Sheik is colorful, and can be funny — usually unintentionally. (His “Hey, have you ever seen Trenton late at night?” is one of the worst come-ons in movie history.) And while he dreams of starting a singing career like his idol Sinatra, when we see where he’s managed to get so far — a weekend gig lip-synching to a jukebox — we don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Which is where the Springsteen songs come in. Although the film’s soundtrack is full of mid-’60s pop hits, it also features “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” and four other Springsteen compositions. They’re anachronistic, of course, but they catch something in the Sheik’s character, and Sayles fought to keep them in — although some early home-video releases cut them, due to rights issues. (Sayles would go on to direct several Springsteen videos, including the one for “Glory Days.”)
And he’s right. The Springsteen songs, with their lyrics about being trapped but realizing that as bad as things are, this may be as good as they’re going to get … that feeling is at the heart of Sheik’s wounded anger. And a good prediction of what he’s going to end up becoming — not even a real Springsteen hero but someone trying to convince himself he is, drinking at home in the dark, playing his copy of The River over and over.
It makes you feel sorry for Sheik. But then he pulls something like grabbing Jill’s arm and shouting at her. Or kidnapping her for a ride around Jersey. Or breaking into her dorm room and trashing her things. He never hits her. But if she does what he wants — which is drop out of school, marry him and start having kids — how long will it be before he starts?
“You think you’re better than me?” he yells at one point, and maybe she does. Maybe she is a bit of a snob. But the fact is, she can do better than him. The guy’s bad news. And “Baby It’s You” dramatizes her slow and painful realization — the one no teenager ever wants to confront — that maybe parents and teachers aren’t so dumb after all.
After Sayles finished shooting, the film started running into trouble. One studio abandoned it. Another demanded cuts. (Matthew Modine, in one of his first movie roles, barely survived the final edit; Robert Downey Jr., also in one of his first roles, did not.) The studio executives also wanted a happy ending. Sayles refused. He went back to indie films for good.
What the studio suits didn’t realize, though, is that this film already has a happy ending. Jill grows up, a little. Sheik learns to let go, maybe. And as painful as first love can be, they both survive it, and even learn something in the process — that sometimes couples are stronger apart than together.
It may not be the Valentine’s Day story you’re looking for this year. But it’s the one a lot of people needed to hear way back when.
“Baby It’s You” is currently streaming on Amazon.
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