Adventures in Baby-sitting

Making art out of nothing at all: Writer-director Tara Spartz
Geoffrey P. Kroll

An acquaintance in the local film biz recently told me that I Hate Babysitting!, a distaff teen comedy shot in Coon Rapids with nonprofessional actors, would have been better with a "hottie" in the titular role--textually speaking, of course. But Twin Cities-based writer-director Tara Spartz begs to differ. "I can't even imagine that perspective," she says from behind her desk at an office-temp job in Minneapolis. "I know it exists, but that's just not the market I'm trying to reach. Most teen movies create these perfect models for young girls to wish they could resemble--whereas I wanted girls who see [my] film to feel good about the way they are." The 25-year-old filmmaker pauses for a moment, reflecting on the work that has occupied her since 1998. "Besides," she continues, "I think the girls [in Babysitting] are beautiful."

Good points, all. And yet I fear that by repeating that "hottie" comment, I've unwittingly encouraged the unpretentious Spartz to make her debut feature sound like a sobering gender-studies tract--the Girls Town of Coon Rapids, perhaps. So what if I told you that I Hate Babysitting! is more like the Midwestern Clerks, and damn near as vulgar? That it kicks off with a borderline obscene vignette linking baby-sitting to prostitution--set to the sickly sweet tune of Air Supply's "Making Love out of Nothing at All," yet--and just builds from there? Or that its keen sense of comic detail turns gooey dog shit, skidmarked undies, and a sought-after pair of jeans into indelible symbols of the suburban experience?

Drawn from Spartz's own recollections of looking after little brats for insultingly low pay, I Hate Babysitting! is a classic comedy of adolescent pain and humiliation, awash in bodily fluids and set, appropriately, during the ass-end of summer vacation just northwest of Minneapolis. What makes it radically different from teen movies of the Hollywood model is what makes it the most accomplished feature to come out of the Twin Cities in years: namely, the Anoka-born Spartz's playful fidelity to the particulars of age, gender, and geographic region, not to mention a genuine love of girls that by itself would be enough to distinguish her film from just about anything currently playing in commercial theaters. As the writer-director busies herself sending tapes of her $10,000 digital-video calling card to film festivals, she's already preparing to start a new script (amazing what a resourceful person can accomplish during a temp job). The question on this critic's mind, then, is whether she'll be allowed to maintain her innately subversive sensibility if and when she graduates from Babysitting to what some might call "a real job."

"I'm just stepping across that line now," says Spartz, whose movie first screened to a sellout crowd at Walker Art Center's "Women With Vision" series in March. "It feels like a business now--it's not art anymore when you're trying to sell yourself. I don't even know where I'm at."

For the time being, at least, Spartz's onscreen coming-of-age is plenty real itself. Struggling to save for back-to-school clothes on a part-time baby sitter's budget, and desperate to attend her best friend Crystal's first kegger despite Mom's fierce objections, our endlessly put-upon heroine Brigit (Amanda Benolkin) suffers her own private hell with truly Minnesotan stoicism....up to a point. The darkest joke in I Hate Babysitting! is that, while Brigit and Crystal (Lea Willcox) are cruelly exploited by every elder who crosses the frame, they themselves think nothing of taking merciless advantage of poor Amy (Katie Benolkin), a bewildered-looking 11-year-old who gets stuck tending Brigit's snotty charges while the big girls sneak away to get blitzed.

Such themes of aggressive female rebellion are nothing new for Spartz, whose tomboyish short "Balls Out!"--in which three leather-clad gals compete in a barroom pinball tourney while their defeated beauty-contestant pal sits weeping in the car--likewise captured a group of sassy chicks at the crossroads of making cash and just hanging out. Babysitting brings the buzz-kill of annoying grown-ups to the party, most ominously in a scene of Brigit's bitchy mom (Roxanne Benolkin) chopping a head of iceberg lettuce and then waving the knife in her daughter's face, forcing her not only to take a terrible baby-sitting gig, but to take out the trash.

"That's an exaggerated version of how my mom and I were when I was that age," says Spartz, who grew up as a self-described "arts geek" and the older of two kids. "As a teenager, you just feel like you're against the world. It seems like no one is speaking your language--even though, in reality, that was probably not the case. In the movie, I wanted to give an edge to [the mother and daughter's] interactions. The mom means well, and she wants her daughter to learn responsibility. But the girls are getting advice on responsibility from the most irresponsible adults, and the adults just have no clue that these girls know as much as they do. I think it's true that you're a lot smarter at that age than any adult will give you credit for. Kids pick up on the ulterior motives that adults have and don't even think about."

Like any youth movie worth its weight in piggybank change, I Hate Babysitting! compels enormous sympathy for its young and oppressed. In this, Spartz benefits a great deal from her talented cast of refreshingly normal-looking kids, including born comedians Amanda and Katie Benolkin, whose mother Roxanne--conveniently cast as the movie's mother--is the director's best friend's aunt. Though the filmmaker didn't exactly give Mother Benolkin the most flattering role, Spartz credits her with being "enthusiastic and encouraging" about her daughters' participation in the project. This, even in the presence of a raunchy script that required Amanda's character to make out with a boy while lying beside a basement heap of dirty clothes, and Katie's to endure her first menstrual period while baby-sitting her charges.

Rehearsal time with these untested actors was brief even by the standards of a bare-bones indie production. "The girls and I had a slumber party at my house and that was about it," says Spartz. "I did take them to the Heights [Theater] to see my friend Darren Roark's short 'A Young Man's Guide to Dating,' which was cool because it allowed them to imagine their reward for making it through the shoot: They'd get to be the 'stars' at a local premiere. And now I Hate Babysitting! is playing at the Heights, so it's as though everything has come full circle for them."


Though she's nearly ten years older than her characters (or her actors), Spartz certainly hasn't forgotten the many indignities attendant to freelance childcare. "Somebody would call you up and say, 'Oh, what are you doing tomorrow night?'" she recalls. "They'd offer the bare minimum: 'Can you come over for an hour or two? You don't have to do anything--I'll be back right away.' And you get there, and it's like there's a whole batch of little kids and their cousins. Sometimes, they'd even have their great-grandma or their great-great-great-great-grandma sitting in the back, and you don't know if she's gonna die or what. When you're a teenager, you don't even know how to talk to your own grandma, let alone someone else's, you know? Throw in a few dogs and whatever else, and you have..."

Well, for one thing, you have a comedy. Indeed, Spartz's autobiographical pitch to the Jerome Foundation succeeded in securing the movie's entire budget in August of 1999, whereupon the director was forced to rush her film into production in order to capitalize on the perfect match of script setting to season--not to mention the young leads' last weeks of summer vacation. Amazingly, the strain of the monthlong shoot scarcely shows onscreen, a strength that Spartz attributes to her instruction from the nationally renowned film department of the Minneapolis Community and Technical College. "One thing that was driven home to me in the [MCTC] program is that in so many films, the director has the characters speak their motivations instead of showing them [herself]. So I'm always challenged to use every shot and every gesture [creatively], because to me it's like, 'Why not?' I mean, how often do you get to make a movie? It became almost manic for me on the set--like, 'Okay, who's going to catch this little joke in the corner of the frame?' I just love finding the details."

Speaking of which, there's one other funny detail to report: The maker of I Hate Babysitting! is going to have a baby. "Everyone's giving me a lot of crap," says Spartz with a laugh. "I mean, I make this movie about hating baby-sitting and here I am pregnant. Actually, I have major anxieties about it. I know people are thinking, 'Oh, she got married and now she's having a baby--that'll be her last movie.' You hear it left and right, and you start to feel like you're doomed. But I don't think my passion for storytelling will ever die. Maybe I'll just write instead [of directing]. One way or another, this won't be my last movie."

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