The Sitter is not a terribly ambitious film. It proceeds through several cycles — consisting of a few scenes of F-bomb-laden jokes followed by an earnest life lesson — with a regimented fidelity that’s borderline monastic. Its emotional logic is mandated, rather than natural, and there (almost) isn’t a thing the plot does that is surprising or original. All that said, it executes this particular type of movie about as well as it can be executed, rather like a good riff on an unimaginative but enjoyable blues number that’s so old no one remembers who wrote it anymore. For what it’s worth, that’s what you’ll be buying with the cost of your ticket.
Noah Griffith (Jonah Hill) has been suspended from college and now lives with his divorced mother, Sandy (Jessica Hecht), in generic movie suburbia. When Sandy’s friends try to bring her along to a party to meet an eligible bachelor, but are unable to find a babysitter, Noah is guilt-tripped into taking care of the kids so his mom can spend a fun night on the town. The friends’ children include the stern and well-dressed Slater (Max Records), demanding teenie-bopper wannabe Blithe (Landry Bender), and finally Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez), an adopted El Salvadorian sporting a good deal of angst and a serious destructive streak.
Once Noah’s night of babysitting is underway, his girlfriend (Ari Graynor) – better described as a snooty female acquaintance who occasionally allows Noah to, ah, service her orally – calls to invite him to a party, offering him sex if he can rustle up some cocaine. So Noah commandeers the family minivan, packs Slater, Blithe, and Rodrigo into the back seats, and sets off on a one-night-long epic quest through Manhattan that will involve car theft, bat mitzvah crashing, exploding toilets, several fist fights, gunfire, the rough-and-tumble patrons of an African-American bar, and a violent homosexual drug dealer (Sam Rockwell) who operates out of a gym and is attended by bikini-clad muscle men.
That’s about all she wrote. Needless to say, each one of the kids resolves – with Noah’s aid – some form of emotional hang-up over the course of the film. Noah himself undergoes a journey into a semblance of adulthood, and of course gets the chance to exchange his bad girlfriend for a good one. She’s charmingly portrayed by a very attractive Kylie Bunbury.
Strewn in between are a good many stabs at humor, sometimes with an edge that’s modestly successful, which is largely what keeps The Sitter afloat. That, and admittedly solid performances from all its major characters: The three young actors rise to the occasion, and Hill himself does a remarkably good job of smoothing out and selling his character’s improbable and sudden shifts from self-absorbed lout to burgeoning father-figure. When Noah walks right up to the brink of ruining his mother’s night by laying his screw-ups upon her, then thinks better of it, the decision carries genuine weight and successfully intertwines the physical and emotional goals of the story. Along the way the dialogue achieves occasional flights of endearing lunacy, and generally manages to avoid platitudes during the moments of emotional catharsis.
The one surprising aspect of the film, most likely the work of its former indie-circuit director David Gordon Green, is the occasional flashes of genuine loss and darkness that break through in the narrative. Noah’s realization that Slater is gay is subtly played, and Slater’s rage and denial when Noah confronts him about his orientation lands with real rawness and honesty. Meanwhile, The Sitter’s thematic core is the emotional destruction which can be wreaked by failed fathers, which is brutally established by a visit to Jim (Bruce Altman), Noah’s own coldly indifferent father, who apparently left the family for (intra-textual reference!) the babysitter. In many ways, Jim becomes the unacknowledged antagonist of the film; the object of Noah’s resentment and the specter against which he most wishes to contrast himself. And that sentiment, in turn, drives Noah’s own internal improvements.
Great filmmaking, The Sitter isn’t. But it’s not an unmitigated disaster either. Those who will want to see it know who they are. Those who don’t, I would maybe suggest they reassess their position – though they should probably also inquire if someone will buy their ticket, or get them drinks afterwards or something.