Cast: Barney Cheng, Grace Guei, Michael Adam Hamilton
Directed By: Barney Cheng
Produced By: Li-Kong Hsu, Stephen Israel
Distributed By: Gravitas Ventures
Written By: Barney Cheng
Genres: Family Comedy, LGTBQ, Asian American Films
Baby Steps follows Danny, a gay Taiwanese-American man, on his journey towards fatherhood. Along the way, he must face his well-intentioned mother, his reluctant boyfriend, and the hardships of getting a surrogate to conceive the child of his dreams.
I have such mixed feelings about the movie Baby Steps. Written, directed, and starring Barney Cheng, the film felt like a several seasons of an Asian soap opera edited into one 100-minute movie. It had all the hallmarks of a Korean drama: laughter, tears, long tense silences, and indulgent flashbacks. But it also had the feel of early 2000’s LGBTQ movies like Latter Days, and Adam and Steve.
What I loved were the relationships, especially between the mother and son. Grace Guei, who plays the film’s matriarch, is an extremely well-known actress in Asia. She starred in Ang Lee’s early films, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman. And she shines as Ma. She cries like no other. But she’s the realest tiger mom since Jessica Huang on Fresh Off The Boat.
The relationship between mother and son is the spine of the movie. Their interactions oscillate back and forth between misunderstood, to loving, to passive-aggressive, to acceptance. You know, like every parent-child relationship since time in perpetuum. But it’s a joy to be seeing this relationship in an Asian-American LGBTQ story, something that’s out of the mainstream and maybe a little new. As Cheng states, “Baby Steps is an example of how they intersect in a positive meaningful way.”
What I didn’t like were the extra scenes that felt like forced add-ins. The scenes meant to move the story along, but in fact just greatly confused me. Did Danny lose his job? Were he and his boyfriend Tate on a break? Who was their friend at the daycare? If Danny and Tate didn’t live together, why are they adopting a child together? What was up with his mom’s arm? I don’t know! Most importantly, I don’t know why specifically Danny wants a baby so bad. He’s asked several times throughout the movie. His responses range from, “It’s important to me,” to a random flashback.
Some of his motivations are explained by Danny’s overbearing and extremely dedicated mother. His mother was simultaneously the most frustrating and hilarious mother figure. She was passive aggressive, pushy, and snuck around everything like she was checking the kitchen at a Chinese restaurant. If you don’t get that reference, you clearly don’t have an Asian mom in your life.
His boyfriend Tate (Michael Adam Hamilton) doesn’t feel as certain about having children. Danny has to convince both his mother and Tate that having a child is what he wants. While I understand that conflict is great for storytelling, this whole plotline felt very shoehorned in. It was like a B-plot that was merely there so Tate could have something to do. Once Tate was on board (with the help of his own surrogate Asian family), there was another roadblock.
Surrogacy in a foreign country can be difficult and in many places it’s illegal. (As a New Yorker, of course I learned all about this from a podcast.) So once Danny has tackled the problems with his mother, and his boyfriend, he know needs to conquer international law. There’s some moral ambiguity about what they did.
Mickey, Ma’s maid from Bali, consents to being the surrogate for Danny and Tate. Up until this point, she’s been set up as fun, happy, and, though an employee, very much a part of Ma’s family. But in a way, it feels like Ma and Danny are taking advantage of her situation.
Mickey represents a large portion of workers in Asia who are servants, maids, butlers, and who send money back to their families. In Mickey’s case, she has twins staying with her mother in Bali. Ma’s offer to give her enough to return to her twins is too enticing for Mickey. And in many ways, this is her family away from home. Her and Barney text and conspire throughout the movie. But at the end of the day, he’s still her “boss’s son.” Mickey, who isn’t even the egg donor, goes through some serious trials. And sometimes it feels like Ma throws her under the bus.
But in the end everything works out for the best. It’s a happy ending and a happy family. Baby Steps is a delightful, if not indulgent, romp that even if you can’t relate to the story you can enjoy Danny and Ma’s familial journey.