And to think: I almost turned it off after the first few minutes. Easy-Bake opens at a gynecologist’s office, and between that scene’s awkward, on-the-nose dialogue and its painfully lengthy pauses, watching it felt about as excruciating as actually being at the doctor. Fortunately, it didn’t take long before this affecting, unique little film grabbed hold. That it did grab hold wouldn’t have surprised me had I read up a bit more on the pedigree of the locally made film, which snagged wins in most of the major categories (Best Narrative More Than 20 Minutes, Best Drama, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Editing, and Best Screenplay) at this summer’s St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase. Trust me, the awards are well-deserved. This is definitely one to watch.
Easy-Bake is the story of Ivan, a 22-year-old virgin who takes her first ever trip to the gynecologist and is informed that, due to a medical issue, if she ever wants to have a child, she has to do so within the next year. Ivan is understandably torn as to whether this is even an issue or not—her mother would be ecstatic if she had a baby, her prone-to-jealousy little sister less so, and Ivan herself loves her part-time gig as a nanny to three precocious toddlers but is way too young, way too single, and way too broke to have pondered whether she wants kids of her own, now or ever. With her ever-supportive roommate Jo (Kennedy Baldwin), Ivan begins considering her options, from sperm banks to random hookups, to try to figure out exactly what she wants out of an adult life that’s barely gotten started.
That simple premise—a young woman has one year to have a baby and that’s it!—could be played any number of ways, from weepy melodrama to Katherine Heigl-style rom-com. Thankfully, writer, director, and star Zoë Kennison decided to aim for lived-in realism, a natural choice since the premise came from Kennison’s own experience. The tone Kennison hits in Easy-Bake is sort of halfway between the black-and-white cinéma verité stylings of Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha and the strong feminist bent and star-directed-passion-project-made-using-their-own-family-and-friends execution of Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture. This was indeed a passion project for Kennison, a recent Webster University grad who financed the project via crowdfunding site Indiegogo and filmed it over two-and-a-half years.
What makes Easy-Bake so appealing is how immediate and realistic it feels. That realism starts with the filming by director of photography Kristin Rolla, who shoots like an unobtrusive documentarian and lets us feel like a fly on the wall witnessing a few months in Ivan’s life. That feeling extends to the unforced naturalism in the performances, particularly by Kennison and Baldwin, and reinforced by the strategic use of improvisation to make Ivan and Jo feel like real joined-at-the-hip roomies/besties. Theirs are performances that don’t feel like performance at all.
With this debut feature, Kennison establishes herself as a talent to watch. She has crafted a film that has a simple premise but offers no simple answers, one with a strong feminist philosophical point of view whose few pointed digs at men are pretty dang funny and—let’s be frank—probably pretty well-deserved. Her performance is fearless and often purposefully unflattering in a way that makes her character all the more relatably human. And her script is as funny as it is thought-provoking. Easy-Bake is exactly the kind of hidden gem you hope to stumble across in a film festival lineup, a new voice telling a unique story like no one else could. | Jason Green
Easy-Bake is screening as part of this year’s Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival and is available to stream from November 5-22. General admission tickets are $10, or $8 for Cinema St. Louis members and students with valid ID. To purchase a ticket, click here.