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Fire and desire. Love and pain. Explosive arguments and inevitable make-up sex at obnoxious volumes. These are vignettes of a bipolar relationship: the turbulent cycle we've all heard tales of, at the very least. Relationships are work, but healthy ones shouldn’t be draining. Love shouldn’t be governed by chaos. In many cases, the unstable element in these volatile bonds is youth. And oh, to be young, in love, and catastrophically immature.
Baby Boy was John Singleton’s return to coming-of-age territory 10 years after terrifying Middle America with his brilliant 1991 debut, Boyz n the Hood. It follows Joseph “Jody” Summers, a 20-year-old man (in the absolute loosest sense of the word) who still lives with his mother despite siring children by two different women. He has adult responsibilities, yet actively resists adulthood. Beneath this exterior is a love story—a dysfunctional one, to be precise. Jody and Yvette, the mother of his oldest child, love each other, flaws and all. He’s a manchild whose actions are often guided by his dick and self-interest; she’s masterful in her antagonism of him. But for all of the infantile trappings of what’s supposed to be an “adult” relationship, there’s an honest beauty to it: it’s a pure, fucked up manifestation of true love. Still, there’s a distinct irony to Jody and Yvette’s messy union being exalted as “relationship goals” by fans of this cult classic considering how toxic their relationship is. Baby Boy has left multiple gifts in its trail (the genesis of Tyrese’s evolution into Tyrese Gibson, thespian; the introduction of the priceless Taraji P. Henson; a shtick that’s endured over a decade’s worth of imitation) through the years, but Singleton’s construction of this emotional rollercoaster has proven more durable than the others.
Popular culture distorts relationship “ideals.” The masses buy into whatever narrative Jay Z and Beyoncé sell to strengthen their empire, while the Obamas are adored for their more wide-reaching preeminence. Many still believe Chris Brown is Rihanna’s match. Jody and Yvette’s relationship, on the other hand, is Tumblr fodder—fuel for musings, memes, GIFS, and the resulting entertainment. Their situation is relatable to some, but too unstable to be celebrated without pause. Baby Boy is piloted by Jody and Yvette’s dynamic, but its volcanic nature makes the film impossible to enjoy without wincing at certain moments. An eruption is assured, and it’s almost guaranteed that neither party is truly innocent.
The phrase “better half” is amusing—because what happens when both partners are equally flawed? Jody and Yvette are bound by three key ties: their love for each other, their son, and debilitating immaturity. They’re in their early 20s; adults legally, but not mentally. Jody is a philandering mama’s boy who’s failed to launch from the nest. Yvette maintains some semblance of adulthood (a job; a car, which Jody drives like it’s his own), but she’s no better than he is. She flaunts a tattoo to Peanut, the mother of Jody’s other child, like it’s a symbol of rank. There’s no mention of her family, but her co-dependency indicates abandonment issues. She’s so terrified of being alone that she puts up with Jody’s bullshit, but still communicates with Rodney (Snoop Dogg, at his villainous scarecrow best), her jailed ex-boyfriend. The cascading effects of their respective upbringings bleed into their relationship.
Together, Jody and Yvette are a glaring case of arrested development: old enough to parent a child, but still only able to see life from childish perspectives. It blends into a powder keg, and, on occasion, their attempts to solve problems only worsen the situation.
Sex is dangerous; it pollutes as quickly as it empowers. The realism of Baby Boy’s sex scenes made the film a Netflix & Chill classic long before marketing drove the phrase into corny banality. But part of the reality is how sex, a potentially unstable agent, is erroneously used as a solution. In Baby Boy’s most famous scene, Yvette interrogates Jody until the confrontation snowballs into a public spectacle, berating him more intensely the closer he gets to actually walking away from her. At the climax, there’s a smash cut to a montage of them fucking each other’s brains out.
During the post-coital comedown, Yvette explains herself: “Jody, when I say I hate you, what I really mean to say is that I love you.” It’s the same sophomoric, contradictory logic Lauryn Hill sang about in “The Sweetest Thing”—somehow, exerting the energy to argue means you care. And sex is temporary relief, it solves nothing long-term. Employing pettiness to get it is as problematic as using it as a fix. Another interrogation escalates to the point of Jody and Yvette putting their hands on each other. It ends with him reflexively slapping her. Horrified, remorseful, and uncertain of how to rectify what he’s done, he performs oral sex on her. Again, an orgasm is a temporary resolution. It resolves nothing in this instance, and the fact that Jody would resort to it is an alarming indicator of how they both view sex. It’s not a Band-Aid for domestic violence—or any scenario, for that matter.
The flaws in Jody and Yvette as individuals, and in their relationship, are points of access. In a 2001 profile of Singleton for Vibe, writer Bönz Malone pegged Baby Boy’s relatability factor:
There’s a lot going on in Baby Boy, and a lot going on with us too. Every day, we are being fed Cosmo-platinum crap that highlights the beautiful people. This has a lasting effect on the way we view each other and how much (and what type of) respect we give and get. This film is for immature audiences who have made serious mistakes on all fronts.
“The rite of passage within us is dysfunctional,” Singleton told Vibe. He understands the unhealthy trials and tribulations all too well. Dating back to Boyz n the Hood, he’s always written what he knows, and he knows these characters. He knows their lives, because, as he eventually admitted, Baby Boy is “loosely” based on his own—all the way down to the baby-mama drama. Singleton also knows that Baby Boy’s audience ultimately wants to see Jody and Yvette sort their mess out.
Dysfunction considered, there’s an undeniable sweetness to their relationship. Youth amplifies emotions, making things feel more dire and intense. But these two genuinely love each other, and it’s clear in the best and worst of times. There’s authentic concern on Jody’s face when Yvette leaves the abortion clinic in physical and emotional agony. In one scene, as Rose Royce’s Gwen Dickey sings about being unable to let go of love and making the best of a situation, we see Jody and Yvette enamored with each other in a simple moment. That’s what people love about them as a couple. As a collective audience, we’re conditioned to want happy endings. We want to see their story draw to a fairytale conclusion where love conquers all and they ride off into the sunset on shiny 10-inch rims as a family.
As New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote in his review of Baby Boy, it’s impossible to analyze the characters with ease. Their intentions are good, even when their moral compasses are pointing in the wrong direction. For Jody and Yvette, the desire to do right is constantly impeded by childish behavior. Regardless, you want to see them do right by and with each other. In a world where doomed couples cohabitate purely because of the economic benefits and people settle for less than who and what they want out of fear of being lonely, you want to see Jody and Yvette challenge that. You want to see them learn from the mistakes of Jody’s mother and her reformed ex-con boyfriend. You want to see them do it so their own children don’t repeat theirs.
When Baby Boy ends with GQ’s cover of “I Do Love You,” it’s almost perfect. When Jody and Yvette say it to one another, you believe them. They mean it, but you know that alone isn’t enough. Their future appears to be together, but it’ll be an uphill battle until they both grow up.