The Sitter confirms director David Gordon Green’s unexpected yet healthy career turn. His 2000 debut George Washington, about the out-of-reach desires of black and white kids in the modern impoverished South, introduced a sweet yet somber regional lyricism. It was followed up by several atrocious art-movies for the indie festival circuit until Green gradually revealed a raucous sense of humor that, as The Sitter reveals, returns him to sanity, proportion and adolescent sweetness.
Before college dropout Noah Griffith (Jonah Hill) slips into slacker lassitude, a night of babysitting three worse-off brats wakes him up. As Noah confronts the world’s dangers (drugs, crime, lovelessness), The Sitter avoids the cynicism—and narcissism—of movies like Bad Santa, Superbad and even Green‘s own Pineapple Express. He seems to have shaken off Judd Apatow’s smart-ass influence and found a personal ratio of mischief to magnanimity. No other Hollywood high-roller would begin a film with oral sex so inherently generous.
Throughout The Sitter, Noah reveals himself a gentleman—the element missing from most TV-inspired snark (Two and a Half Men, That 70s Show, even Freaks and Geeks that short-circuit moral dilemmas for easy laughs and sentimentality). Noah’s good-heartedness wins out over false conceptions of courage, the damaged humanism flaunted in movies about losers who want to be hipsters.
In fact, Noah’s behavior toward the non-reciprocating Marisa (Ari Graynor), whom he likes to call his girlfriend; his divorced mom; the at-risk charges (Max Records as forlorn Slater, Landry Bender as princessy Blithe, Kevin Hernandez as violent foster kid Rodrigo) who accompany him on a wild night out; a sexually ambiguous dealer (Sam Rockwell); and a girl he hadn’t noticed before, Roxanne (Kylie Bunbury), suggests an unsuspecting knight on a moral sojourn.
Noah’s chivalry—summoning protectiveness, responsibility and ardor—is a virtue derived from sympathetic engagement with people he meets. This courtliness differs from Green’s previous film, the medieval fantasy Your Highness built around Danny McBride’s irrepressible comic id. The Sitter is milder, though no less charming, due to Green’s slight distance—he’s consciously remaking his own film influences. The storyline (from a script by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka) recalls both Martin Scorsese’s febrile After Hours and Chris Columbus’ beguiling Adventures in Babysitting. Guess which is more effective.
Green revives the film-school ingenuity that distinguished George Washington as a socially-rooted version of Terence Malick’s philosophical reveries. This is less authentic. Green softens After Hours’ ugliness and glosses the fable of Adventures in Babysitting perhaps because he doesn’t quite grasp the urban energy of the New York-set story. The Sitter isn’t a great—radical—advance like Jared Hess’ Gentlemen Broncos (a classic-in-waiting), but its fondness for kind idiosyncrasy (Noah’s final speech to an errant adult shows the maturity Warren Beatty’s character never attained in Shampoo) outlines a humanist view similar to Hess.
While revisiting ’80s genre totems (as in his recent film series “Adventures in the 80s” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music), Green combines the most encouraging recent youth movie achievements: Graynor hails from the remarkable ethnic coming-of-age film Holy Rollers, Records calls up his angst in Where the Wild Things Are and lovely Bunbury generates the same idealism she had in Prom, a serene vision of adolescence and this year’s most beautifully photographed film. Noah finds beauty in Roxanne (Cyrano reference intended) just as Green did with the prepossessing Candace Evanofski in George Washington. Bunbury’s personification of racial ardor redeems the black stereotypes of The Sitter’s nighttown sequences. Like Noah, Green discovers something richer, deeper; he’s an original homeboy in more than one sense.