My interest in “Bang Bang Baby” was first piqued when its star Jane Levy was giving an interview for another film and so clearly couldn’t contain her excitement for it that she blushed. It’s easy to understand why – for actors who will often say it’s the dream to do a musical, Jeffrey St. Jules’ debut feature is the type of film that comes around once in a blue moon, a fun and freaky tuner that not only looks like it was a blast to make, but will ensure an enduring cult following for all involved.
Naturally, “Bang Bang Baby” actually takes place under a blue moon for the most part, or a bluish-purplish one to be more precise after a small Canadian burgh is overtaken by a chemical fog caused by a malfunction at the local Purple Mist plant, threatening all the residents with genetic mutation. For Levy’s Stephanie Holiday, at least it’s something of a change from her humdrum life, her dreams of becoming a singing sensation in New York dashed by a sickly father (Peter Stormare) who won’t let her go. Instead, she sticks around town with other girls whose dreams only go as far as Montreal where marriage awaits in the still-conformist year of 1963, yet when the fog hits, it brings with it her American big screen crush Bobby Shore (Justin Chadwick), a Ricky Nelson-esque heartthrob who ends up in Canada after his German driver Helmut (Kristian Bruun) believes he’s driven to Kansas. While Stephanie’s dreams of stardom are rekindled as Bobby becomes her new flame, she’s haunted by Fabian (David Reale), an engineer at the plant who takes advantage of her shortly before the spill and subsequently vies for her attention with Bobby, who literally makes his skin crawl, given the effect of the mutations.
No one in town seems all too concerned about their rapidly changing bodies and if that seems odd, in general, the film’s weirdness that be fairly judged in direct proportion to how much the usually outlandish Stomare isn’t as Stephy’s doting dad. Often shot on era-appropriate soundstages with rear-projection, it’s as if one of the Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello beach comedies was mashed up with a monster movie, with a vaguely sinister tone infecting everything from songwriters Rich Pell and David Wall’s takes on top 40 acts such as Lesley Gore and Dick Dale and the Del Tones to the romantic come-ons that acknowledge the other, less innocent parts of the world – Bobby’s idea of seducing Stephanie is to point of the satellite amongst the stars and whisper as a sweet nothing in her ear, “Our president sent that up there to bomb other countries from space.”
As much as St. Jules pushes the envelope, there are places where he doesn’t go quite as far as he could. The film’s humor could stand to be a little sharper, confined mostly to gentle ribbing and light irony, and despite clever uses of evocative lighting throughout, there are times where “Bang Bang Baby” literally becomes too dark and shadowy when it strays too far away from the ‘60s films it’s sending up. But it’s a testament to the cohesiveness of the world the writer/director has created that you want it to be even better since so much of it works, both utterly ridiculous and sincere with a distinct personality all its own.
Levy and Chatwin have both been long overdue for an opportunity like this, trading on the mischief that lies just beyond their innocent appeal, something neither of the actors have been shy to exploit on shows such as “Suburgatory” and “Shameless,” respectively, but allows St. Jules to frequently get away with murder. While Chatwin gives Bobby a breezily aloof charm, not to mention completely game to don a white-streaked cowlick to assay Elvis with a skunk on his head, Levy gives extra dimension to typical small-town girl with big city dreams, radiating an intelligence and yearning that makes you deeply invested in the character well before the crazy plot turns begin to take hold.
“Bang Bang Baby” marks an auspicious debut for St. Jules, who has been building up to this with shorts, and one wonders what he could do on an even bigger canvas. Yet for now, it’s quite enough to have something as strange and satisfying in the world as his first feature, which is pretty much a delight from start to finish.
“Bang Bang Baby” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play twice more at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 10 at the Scotiabank Theatre 8 at 4:15 pm and Sept. 12 at the Scotiabank Theatre 4 at 6 pm.