For her debut as a writer and director, actor Famke Janssen chose to tell a raggedly uneven story about a Ukrainian con woman (Milla Jovovich) and her treasured 10-year-old son (Spencer List). The pair attempts to start a new life in Oklahoma after leaving Kansas City under less-than-ideal circumstances. Their journey starts with the theft of a car, and includes mother-child shoplifting and insurance scamming. It’s all good-natured grift until they get on the wrong side of a judgmental neighbor, which lands Jovovich in jail and List in the adoptive care of kind, wealthy, conveniently childless Bill Pullman and Marcia Cross. When mom gets out, she starts to realize that being with her as she struggles to go straight might not be the best life possible for her boy.
Bringing Up Bobby centers around a mugging performance by Jovovich, who can’t ground the film’s attempts to tie together sentiments from Paper Moon and Miss Saigon. Her character’s near-cartoonish affect—she wipes away obvious crocodile tears as she bilks a church group out of money she claims is for clothes for South American orphans—may be intended to soften the potential ickiness of the way she’s raising her child, but it’s markedly grating, and makes the eventual turn to seriousness impossible to navigate. Dressed in retro fashions and fluttering her eyelashes, Jovovich has a coy shiftiness that’s announced in 45-foot-high letters, as is her love for List, whom she dotes on in ways that start to come across as more indulgent or codependent than healthy, given the boy’s general brattiness. (His feud with his mother’s cohort in petty crime, played by Rory Cochrane, is the film’s most unforced relationship.)
Bringing Up Bobby was reportedly inspired by Janssen’s own experiences arriving in the U.S., and the faint undercurrent of mistrust of the American dream running through the film is its most complex quality, though it’s underexplored. The way the protagonist compulsively takes things she wants to have—a car, clothes, money—and deals with the consequences later suggests these trappings are more of an unhealthy habit than an end goal. Intentional or not, the redemptive ending also seems like a particularly ominous metaphor for the immigrant experience—trading identity and family ties in for baseball, a backyard, and a theoretically better life for your offspring.