Forty years later, “Baby It’s You” remains one of the most genuine coming-of-age stories. It is one of the few films to explore the liminal space between high school and adulthood. “Baby It’s You” captures an emotional time period that throws young people completely off their axes. The sudden life changes after high school graduation provoke the main characters’ anxieties about time, namely their youth slipping away and facing an unknown future. The 1960s setting magnifies these struggles, an era teetering towards social revolutions and new feminist attitudes.
On the surface, “Baby It’s You” appears to be a classic good girl and bad boy tale. In the suburbs of Trenton, New Jersey, Jill Rosen (Rosanna Arquette) is the daughter of a Jewish doctor who dreams of becoming an actress. She falls for Sheik (Vincent Spano), an Italian semi-greaser and the son of a garbageman who was kicked out of his former school. Despite their differences, they share a fervid romance.
At the time of the film’s 1983 release, American cinema reminisced about the seemingly idealistic 1950s and early 1960s—the innocent years before the Vietnam war, Watergate, the recession, and other events that withered national pride in the coming decades. The first half of “Baby It’s You” evokes nostalgic films such as “Diner” or “The Wanderers.” The costumes are conservative, closer to the trends of the early 1960s, with the girls in long skirts and knee-high socks and the boys in refined slacks and ties. Sayles’ soundtrack features sugary pop songs from the era, such as “Wooly Bully” and “Stop! In the Name of Love.” Yet Sayles was not interested in romanticizing the past. He subverts the nostalgia film genre through two distinct devices: the use of anachronistic Bruce Springsteen music and dividing the narrative between the couple’s senior year in 1966 and 1967 when Jill attends theatre school at Sarah Lawrence and Sheik works as a dishwasher in Miami.
According to the book John Sayles by David R. Shumway, Paramount was expecting a lurid teenage sex comedy in the vein of “Animal House” or “Porky’s.” The studio felt “Baby It’s You” was lengthy and too dour and suggested that the second half be reworked or cut entirely: “As far as Amy [Robinson] and I were concerned, the only thing that made it interesting was that it did go on to college and that it wasn’t just another nostalgia piece,” Sayles told Kenneth M. Chanko in John Sayles: Interviews. The book Hollywood and the Baby Boom: A Social History details how Sayles threatened to leave the project entirely or remove his name from the credits unless he was given control over the final edit.