(Canada, 85 min.)
Written and directed by Jeffrey St. Jules
Starring: Jane Levy, Justin Chatwin, Peter Stormare, David Reale
What the actual heck?
Bang Bang Baby sings a song from space as writer/director Jeffrey St. Jules (Let the Daylight Into the Swamp) creates one of the strangest and most delightful trips to the lunatic fringe you’ll ever see. The film comes to theatres after scooping the prize for Best Canadian First Feature at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and the Claude Jutra Award for Best First Feature at this year’s Canadian Screen Awards, and it’s easy to see the merit in these prizes. Bang Bang Baby is a bizarre anomaly in a summer of mostly indistinguishable movies: this is wild, original, and audacious filmmaking.
Bang Bang Baby takes audiences to the trippy time of the Cold War era 1960s (the Cold War being Canadian winter) in the small and sleepy town of Lonely Pines. In Lonely Pines lives a dreamer named Stepphy (Jane Levy) who has the pipes to make it big in America as a singer. Stepphy lands an audition on an American Idol-type show, and it could be her big break, but her alcoholic and mildly tyrannical father (Peter Stormare, an impressive get) refuses to let her go. Stepphy nevertheless gets a shot at stardom when the nearby chemical plant unleashes toxic fumes into the air and envelops Lonely Pines with a purple carcinogenic haze. The strange occurrences bring Stepphy’s favourite American crooner, Bobby Shore (Justin Chatwin, who earned a well-deserved Canadian Screen Award nomination for his performance), in with the smoke. In no time, Stepphy and Bobby are singing a duet that’s out of this world and she realizes her dreams in her own peculiar way.
Levy gives a spectacularly plucky performance as Stepphy, a Betty Elms type of dreamer from ho-hum Canada with wide eyes and big dreams. She boasts an impressive set of pipes as Stepphy sings her heart out in a mix of ballads and jukebox ditties, and her hand for physical comedy, as well as tapping into the overall cracked-out strangeness of the film, sells it just as well. Almost every frame of Bang Bang Baby’s wide-eyed escapism rests on Levy’s performance and she’s an anchor for the film’s ability to shift shapes, tones, and forms.
Bang Bang Baby zanily mixes genres and styles, but it remains attune to how perfectly whacky it is. Bang Bang Baby works because everyone making the movie seems to be having as much fun as one possibly can on set, and the film has an underlying emotional honesty about one’s desire to escape, break free, and reach for the stars when everyone else seems content to settle for a life without any spark. The songs play into the wistful escapism of musicals as Stepphy and Bobby shimmy and shake, and the numbers become weirder and weirder the more Bang Bang Baby mutates from a sweet small town dream to a strange and unusual nightmare. The fantastical element of one genre complements the fantastical character of the other, and the dark comedy gives it a third dimension. Elements of body horror ripple through the film, too, as Stepphy and her fellow Piners show outrageous side effects of the purple mist from the plant. Bellies rumble, fingers swell, and grade-A-perverts grow extra fangs in Lonely Pines, and the townspeople make a veritable monster mash as they sing and dance their way out of the darkness.
St. Jules is no stranger to experimenting with forms, genres, and styles, as he shows in his past shorts, and Bang Bang Baby buzzes with freshness as he uses the different elements to create something both familiar and surreal, and strange and new. The vintage clothes and sets find playful counterparts in cheesy green screens and vibrant colours, all of which make for a head-trip as intoxicating as the purple mist. Echoes of Maddin, Cronenberg, Paizs, and other greats lend their voices to the song as Bang Bang Baby comes to life with its eccentric potpourri, but a wildly original voice easily stands out from the chorus. The direction of the film is authentic and precise: while Bang Bang Baby carefully calculates its self-awareness, the very charade of the film becomes part of its mystery as Stepphy’s escape from reality comes down to earth and the film changes keys for a dark finale.
Dark as it gets, though, Bang Bang Baby consistently remains a riot. The songs are outrageous but hilariously clever tunes that could easily play to milkshake-sipping patrons at Rockin’ Johnny’s, while the spirited performances by Levy and Chatwin ooze charm. All this likable weirdness feels especially novel with the film’s fun play on boring frigidly cold Canada, like a ridiculous roasted beaver (a puppet) that appears at the dinner table and looks so cute, cuddly, and inviting amidst the roasted carrots and potatoes that one almost expects it to burst into song. Like a roasted beaver in a pan, Bang Bang Baby is an acquired taste and is undoubtedly of the love-it-or-leave-it variety, but anyone in the mood for an out of this world farce is sure to have a lot of fun watching this cult hit in the making. Bang Bang Baby is hands down the best 1960s’ sci-fi/musical/comedy ever to come out of Canada. Sure, it might be the only 1960s’ sci-fi/musical/comedy ever to come out of Canada, but how often do the movies offer something new?
Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Bang Bang Baby opens August 21 in Toronto at the Varsity, in Vancouver at Fifth Avenue, and in Montreal at the Forum.