Phoebe Cates Month rolls on with our next movie, the 1983 possibly-sultry-but-maybe-not-tv-movie Baby Sister!
After Cates dove into all our fantasies in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (her second film role, and if you can just hold your damn horses for a couple more weeks, we will certainly be discussing the first film role), she was able to continue to work relatively steadily for the next few years. Later in 1983, she would get another big-time part in the coming of age comedy Private School before returning to TV to deliver this cherry line in the miniseries Lace where she played a sex symbol actress searching for her natural mother.
Then she was in Gremlins and rounded out one of the most perfect movies ever made. And sincerely go fuck yourself if you don’t agree with that assessment. You might get a voucher for a pass if you say Gremlins 2 is more perfect. You’re still wrong, but I’ll give you a little bit of a pass because that movie is goddamn awesome too even if it isn’t as perfect as the first.
Baby Sister aired on ABC on March 6, 1983 and I have to admit that I’m glad to be taken back to the days of Sunday Night Movies that were so popular before cable stations horned in on making their own content. The synopsis on IMDb is fairly simple: “Immature dropout Annie concocts a scheme to get her older sister’s live-in boyfriend to date her instead.”
Two things. First, that seems way too simple for an entire movie so hopefully there’s something more going on there. Second, listen, honey, if your sister is Phoebe Cates, you stand a pretty good chance of losing. Unless you’re Alyssa Milano. Or Bea Arthur.
I’ve said too much.
As the movie starts, I see it is produced by ITC which was the company that produced The Muppet Show and that’s awesome. During the credits with a rockin’ song about what happens when things get too hot, we’re treated to an aerial view of what appears to be Los Angeles and it looks smoggy and gross and post-apocalyptic. But good times are on the way as we see Annie (Cates), riding the bus into town to start seducin’ dudes. They really stick to the theme song and Annie’s bus ride to the point that I’m beginning to think they filmed her entire trip from wherever to L.A. or this song was way too expensive to not play the whole thing. You can keep the shots of a sweaty, glistening Phoebe Cates stuck in a Greyhound bus though. Thanks, Baby Sister, for helping me discover a brand new fetish.
Annie gets off the bus in Santa Monica where she calls her sister, Marsha, while a creep eerily checks her out in the background. If you think that becomes a thing, what with a creep creepily checking out a teenage Phoebe Cates, it doesn’t. It’s just your normal bus station fare. Marsha (Pamela Bellwood who kinda has a Lynda Carter look going for her) comes to pick her up. Annie says she dropped out of college with not much longer left in the semester. Marsha brags a bit about her boyfriend, David (Ted Wass). She drops Annie off, and she knocks on the door and David answers shirtless which was absolutely normal 1983 fare. Later, Marsha tells Annie that she needs to call their dad and let him know about her dropping out.
A small detail given during the drive from the bus station to Marsha and David’s home is that they live by the ocean on the beach and they have no air conditioning. I think this is all excuse for sweaty girls. tube tops on Phoebe, and a shirtless, hairy chested Ted Wass running wild. It’s also established that Marsha is the “good” sister and Annie is the “bad” sister. That night, David wants a little action from Marsha, but she declines saying that it’s too hot and Annie’s going to hear them. David agrees to drop that subject and seems somewhat frustrated. Early the next morning, he runs into Annie wearing only a football jersey. See what’s up here? Hairy chested guy wants some sex, like we’re apt to wanting, gets denied, as we’re apt to be, so he’s gonna find it from the bad girl down the hall. The 1980s were awesome.
It doesn’t take too long for the movie to crank up the montage machine. Annie starts searching for jobs so she can get some money so she can get her own place. Because she doesn’t have a college education, she gets rejected time and time again. When her dad (Efram Zimbalist, Jr.) lets her know about his disappointment and doubt that she’ll find a job, David steps in and gives her a job as a receptionist at the clinic he doctors at. See what’s going on here? She’s going to be hanging out with David all the time and because you know how work things go, she’s going to fall in love with him. It is basically on her very first day that a weird conversation happens – She gives David a bouquet of flowers to thank him for the job, which is rather innocent really. There’s a brief exchange about how one ball busting patient likes younger men that leads to him asking how she felt about 31 year old dudes. That… seems awfully specific, Dave ol’ buddy. She says she’s not into them and he jokes that he just has to settle for the flowers.
So I guess David already likes Annie? She hasn’t made her own moves yet other than just being Phoebe Cates. Never mind. That’s enough. That’s more than enough to pull a dude away from whatever else he’s got going on.
The next morning, David and Annie go for a run along the beach while Marsha sleeps in. They meet Marsha for brunch and as Annie falls behind the couple, David tells her they can all walk together and continues to walk with his arms around both girls. David is a creep.
Later, Annie shows Marsha her new house that she is renting in a shitty part of town. She’s integrated well into the clinic. Enough so that one of David’s doctors talks about how much he’d like to tap it because she’s only 19. I will still say the 80s were pretty goddamn awesome, but there were a whole lot of creepos out there too. David is the one who holds the line, though, and says that she’s young and Marsha’s sister. While I will say that helps him seem like a decent, and protective, guy, but he’s not exactly been innocent in what messages a nineteen year old girl is picking up.
There are other little things that happen in this portion of the movie. Marsha asks Annie what kind of guys she likes and that she knows some guys about David’s age she could set her up with if she wants. BAD IDEA, big sis. She also is constantly talking about how hot David is. Is the world trying to get David and Annie together? She also tells David a little bit about why Annie and her father don’t get along. Something to do with Annie being just like their mother and how she was there when their mother was killed. I’m guessing this passes for back story and character development, but it’s kinda shallow and weird where this is placed within the story. I think I’d really rather Phoebe be the actual bad girl instead of a somewhat introverted slacker type.
One Sunday afternoon, while Marsha is at work, David goes to Annie’s apartment to help her with some handiwork. They have some pleasant conversation about what she’d like to do beyond being a receptionist and he tries to build her confidence about getting back into art. It’s really not much more than an innocent conversation between a guy and his likely future sister-in-law. They seem like friends. Yeah, he’s making her feel good about herself and I guess that might lead her to like him a little more than she probably should, but I signed up for a vixen of a baby sister and I’m getting a nice little story of a guy who is truly friendly to a girl who is a little down on herself.
During a stormy night after the clinic closes, Annie accompanies David to the home of an Asian lady to try to help her unresponsive teenage son who maybe overdosed on something. We are treated to some good old fashioned 80s TV action music, but he was not able to save him. David is pretty bummed out about having this dead kid. Annie tries to comfort him and they kiss.
That’s right, the greatest aphrodisiac of them all… A dead Chinese kid.
That night, Annie seems pretty confused about what happened. The next morning, she tells David that she wished it didn’t happen. He tells her it was just a kiss, but she thinks maybe she should find another job. He convinces her to stay on and still be friends. While they talk, a weird guy rifles through her desk drawer for pills. The guy asks for some painkillers and David turns him away.
I’m now realizing this is a super weird movie. A romance between a fairly attractive doctor and his girlfriend’s younger, hotter, probably more attentive sister, a dead Chinese kid who o.d’ed on painkillers, that kid’s probably dealer, dead moms, and horny dudes just staring at Phoebe Cates. This shit is weird, man.
At a dinner for Annie and Marsha’s dad, David seems to consistently make eyes at Annie. David is also started to be more frustrated with how much time Marsha is spending at work. He’s also very sympathetic of Annie when her dad is a dick to her during his birthday dinner. He especially rips Annie one when she gives him a painting that reminds him too much of her mom. When she suggests he doesn’t have to display it at all, he snaps at her and causes her to leave upset. So add daddy issues to the above list of the mish mash of what makes Baby Sister a movie.
Where did the daddy issues come from? When Annie was little, she was playing on the other side of the street. She wasn’t supposed to cross the street when she was outside. When her mom went across the street to get her, the mom was hit by a car and killed. Annie believes her dad blames her for mom’s death. So… That’s that thing.
One night, Marsha frantically calls Annie because she has to work late and can’t meet David for a ballet they had tickets for for months. She asks Annie to go in her place, but Annie is resistant to the idea. It’s kinda like she’s not a Lolita-esque Jezebel, but actually trying to not fuck Ted Wass. You’ve lied to me, movie! I want Poison Ivy and I’m getting Beauty and the Beast (with 100% more dead Chinese kid and 100% less Beast). Annie eventually caves and meets David. She’s lookin’ pretty hot too if I do say so myself. They have a marvelous evening which ends with them plowing.
To sexy saxophone music.
I think it’s a good idea to take another aside here. While I don’t exactly condone David double dipping into the Burroughs girls’ honey pots simultaneously, I can’t hate what’s happening here. David and Marsha doesn’t have a great relationship, and they really probably should work that shit out before he beds the titular (heh, score one for ol’ Geoff on the use of a tit-based word) baby sister, but this isn’t a terrible relationship. It’s awkward as shit because he’s got some real issues to work through with his very serious girlfriend, but 1) Annie isn’t underage and, therefore a consenting (if not entirely mature) woman and 2) she is actively trying to avoid this relationship up to this point. Neither are operating outside of normal chemistry either. They seemingly compliment each other too. Now, I guess you can say that we’ve seen evidence in which both are their own differing types of screw-ups with Annie being a slacker and David maybe not quite motivated enough to go into a much more lucrative practice as a doctor, but I thought this was gonna be a lot more lewd than what I got.
And, while I do not dislike this movie because it is a TV movie-of-the-week in style, production, and plot after all, I am feeling a little short changed.
Annie and David feel pretty terrible about what they did, but they also don’t deny they feel pretty awesome about it all too. Things aren’t helped by Marsha needing to go to San Francisco to deal with an artist for a show she is having in her art gallery. While she’s gone, David and Annie go to lunch and she’s clearly unnerved being seen in public with her sister’s boyfriend. She’s actually downright paranoid about it. He takes her to his buddy’s beach house that he initially wanted to take Marsha to. David tells Annie that he wants to tell Marsha what’s going on. She doesn’t want him to because she doesn’t want to hurt her, but then he rationalizes that things weren’t working out for a while and that he loves Annie. They fuck again.
Again, let me take a side bar here for one other point. When David tells her his rationalization that things haven’t been working out between he and Marsha, Annie literally says that maybe it would if she wasn’t around. See what I’m saying here? Annie is actively trying to resist the relationship. That’s not a reflection that David is forcing himself on Annie, but she’s legitimately anti-relationship-with-David. She is not concocting a plan for David to date her instead of her sister like the plot summary from IMDb said.
When Annie visits Marsha at her art gallery, Marsha says herself that she and David are in a rough spot, but it will all get better when the gallery officially opens. She even seems kinda lukewarm about if she still loves David. That night, he even tries to talk to Marsha about how he’s feeling about their relationship but she tells him that it will all be okay after tomorrow’s opening.
Annie goes to her dad and tells him she’s leaving L.A. and planning to go back to school. They kinda make up a little bit and he gives her some money to get by. Annie prepares to leave after Marsha’s gallery opening. First, she decides to tell David she’s leaving and going back east for school. She tells David it can’t work between them. Goddammit, I was not expecting Annie to be the one that is thinking rationally and maturely about who is going to be hurt by all this.
But they almost have sex one more time before going to the gallery opening before she finally tells him that they really can’t.
They hear a noise in the clinic and find the guy looking for pills from earlier. He attacks David and they wrestle around a bit while Annie calls the cops. The bad guy, using his super-human-druggie strength, knocks David out and throws a cabinet on top of him. Marsha gets word that David was hurt and sees him at the hospital. When Marsha and Annie talk in the waiting room, it’s revealed Annie and David had a thing. Marsha is understandably hurt… and pissed. Real pissed.
Side Bar: Goddammit, movie. You spend a ton of time making Annie resistant to being David’s girlfriend. You do a pretty great fucking job of her being the most level-headed person. Yet, when Marsha gets mad at her and starts talking about how disappointed she is in Annie, etc, Annie doesn’t say the one thing… THE ONE THING that would get her off the hook – that she time and time again resisted the relationship FOR Marsha’s sake. It’s a little too late now to try to make her a bad girl or a messed up person when you’ve done all you could possibly do to make her an introvert with underlying issues that make her make some bad mistakes but not all the worst mistakes. Goddammit movie. You’re losing me here at the end.
When confronted by her father, Annie does seemingly make up for all their past issues by finally talking to him about her mom’s death. So there’s one conclusion. David and Marsha have their closure too. Oh, they are totally broken up, but David takes the blame and tells her that Annie was leaving and was wanting to break it off with him anyway. Ultimately, it comes down to David saying to Marsha what needed to be said by Annie previously and I guess that’s okay because it really completes Annie’s arc as a character. Especially when Marsha catches Annie before she boards a play for the east and forgives her. Annie still leaves, which kinda seems like she’s doing her running away thing when things get tough, but maybe it’s what will help her to grow up. The movie ends on a classic TV freeze frame of Annie waving goodbye from the tunnel in the terminal.
I wouldn’t say this movie is bad by any stretch of the imagination. As much as I would have rather watched a movie in which Phoebe Cates is a little sexier, a little more scandalous, a little more, well… more, I’m okay with what I got. It’s a decent little drama that would have been plenty fine for a Sunday Night Movie (it literally aired on a Sunday night, so I guess it was ABC’s Sunday Night Movie that week). It’s heavy handed in some ways what with Annie’s issues with her father and her guilt about her mother’s death. Honestly, none of that was necessary other than for her to have a way to be forgiven by her father. It definitely is another example of Phoebe Cates taking roles that, if not notable (i.e. Gremlins), at the very least had good intentions.
There were some odd things. Like the heavy handed stuff I mentioned before, but there are a few things that were introduced early but kinda left in the dust. All that talk about it being hot in the first half hour or so ultimately led nowhere. If this was something that treated Annie as more of a Jezebel, she would have used the heat to purposely wear sexy, revealing clothes and then you could have seen the seduction angle for her and David. That wasn’t really there. Sure, she wore bodysuits and tube tops up and down this whole thing, but that seemingly was more of a style thing than a way to amp up sexuality. I guess I just thought there would be a bunch more sweaty Phoebe Cates than there was.
Oh well, at least it wasn’t a truly bad movie. Next week, I’ll be looking at another movie in the Phoebe Cates catalog when I am left to choose between a heavenly creature and some chick with wings in 1987’s Date with an Angel.