Netflix’s sleeper hit Baby checks all the boxes for a high school drama: sex, teenagers, and an autocratic teaching staff, which, today, may not seem like the most groundbreaking recipe. But there’s a bit of European spice layered in. The show is inspired by the very real “Baby Squillo” scandal, where two underage girls from Rome’s posh Parioli district were abducted into a sex-trafficking ring.
Ahead of Baby’s premiere in November of last year, this “Baby Squillo” connection had media outlets writing fearful think pieces and nonprofits like the National Center on Sexual Exploitation calling for Netflix to pull the series, concerned it would glamorise prostitution. In the end, the show’s connection to the scandal manifests only loosely, although two of the eight originally slated episodes were inexplicably cut from the first season.
The series follows Chiara, a privileged Roman teen who attends an elite private school with her wealthy, attractive friends. Feeling like an outsider in her well-manicured life and struggling with the instability of her parents’ marriage, Chiara befriends the socially ostracised Ludo almost as an act of transgression – Ludo is not only not wealthy, but also labelled a slut by the entire community because of a sex tape leaked by her ex-boyfriend. As they grow closer, Chiara and Ludo begin partying together at seedy nightclubs, where two predatory older men take notice of their looks – and their naivety – hoping to recruit them for their sleazy clients.
Ludo, in need of money and devoid of any meaningful relationships in her life, is the first to be lured into a Seeking Arrangements-esque transaction, whereby no sex is exchanged. Instead a middle-aged dentist pays her for a couple of dates. Chiara has sex with her first client on what she considers her own terms, as she neither needs nor wants to take his money.
Chiara, played by Benedetta Porcaroli, expresses agency in setting up the appointment and leading the encounter, but she is 16 years old, and she is manipulated, on some level, into being there. It’s also an episode in which Porcaroli shines. Her azure puppy dog eyes sparkle with tears of sadness as easily as they flash with mischief.
“[Chiara] feels very free when she does what she does because she thinks this is the first choice that she makes for real in her life. She lives in a world that expects her to behave in a certain way and she doesn’t recognise herself,” says Porcaroli over the phone from Ibiza. She has just wrapped up season two of the show and is taking a much-needed vacation with her friends. “In this case the prostitution is something she does just to be free for a while and not to do something that others want her to do.”
In season two the central narratives extend to more common problems: love, friendship, bullying, absent parents, sexual awakening, social media, and socio-economic status. In classic teen show intrigue, Chiara and her best frenemy Camilla fall for the same cute transfer student from a hard-up neighbourhood.
“I don’t want people who see this to think that this whole generation can experience these kinds of problems, like prostitution – I don’t think this happens in everyday life,” she says with vigour. “I don’t want people to think for one minute that this is normal because it’s not. It’s normal to have something to fight when you’re growing up, even something very complicated to fight, but this is absolutely not normal and it’s not an example for all.”
For her part, the 21-year-old has said her own upbringing was easy. Porcaroli got her first job when she was 15 and it was around that time that a friend of her mother’s, who had just opened an acting agency, encouraged her to audition for Italian sitcom Tutto Puo Succedere. The scene required her to portray a daughter fighting with her parents; she did such a good job that it landed her a regular role.
Since then she’s been cast in multiple Italian films, won a Biraghi Award for up-and-coming actors in Italian cinema, graced the covers of Marie Claire Italia and Seventeen Mexico, and become the next big thing in her home country. She is the lead in her next film, 18 Regali.
Porcaroli finds it hard to fathom the amount of people that have tuned in to Baby around the world. “It changes your life because the day before the series goes out, nobody knows you, except in Italy, and the day after, everyone has seen your series,” she says. “It’s weird at the beginning, because you’re in America, for example, and people know you.”
With this increased recognition comes a heightened sense of self-awareness. Thanks to social media, everyone has access to Porcaroli’s life. Young fans need only to open Instagram to see a video of Porcaroli dancing on a boat in Ibiza, or check her list of followers to figure out which co-stars she’s friends with IRL. “You can feel uncomfortable in certain situations; you cannot be drunk in a public place for instance, if you want, for a night – you have to be careful,” she says. “You have to be very concentrated on your career path and not get too distracted by the people around you because it’s like you’re very famous, and it could be finished one day.”
Despite her own life being far from that of her character, there are themes within Baby that Porcaroli can relate to. “Teenagers may recognise themselves in our characters, even if they didn’t do what our characters do. Maybe it’s something universal in how [Baby speaks] about emotions and the coming-of-age of these characters. I think that’s something every human in this phase has passed.”
Baby is relatable for adults too, but for different reasons. Watching the series feels somewhat voyeuristic, a little addictive: disconnected, yet deeply satisfying. There’s something recognisable in the thrilling power trip that comes with a sexual awakening, and the unsettling confusion of having that power snatched away from you. There’s something familiar, for some, in the mistakes. Whether that’s Ludo and her knack for falling for men who want to manipulate her, or the parent who’s engaging in a relationship that she shouldn’t be.
It’s safe to say that Baby’s characters – young and old – make many mistakes, but we are yet to see the ramifications. According to Porcaroli, everything comes crashing down in season two. “These girls don’t know the consequences at the beginning, because they don’t have anyone around them who is older that they trust. So it’s very complicated.”
Handling the aftermath with maturity and tact could provide Baby with an opportunity to do its inspired story justice and to canonise itself as a young adult series that will go the distance – much like Porcaroli herself.
Styling Assistant Mina Erkli, Makeup Tanja Friscic, Hair Daniele Falzone, Special thanks Atomo Management.