Hardships implied through fantasies, and pain through longing: sometimes the hurt cuts too deep and the only way to cope is to flee by imagining an easier world where we’re prosperous and happy. Everyone fantasizes about a better life but, for a select few, disassociation is a coping mechanism that can be crippling. Imagine living in your daydreams and only sometimes waking up.
Jeffrey St. Jules’ feature-length debut, Bang Bang Baby, which happens to be one of the best musicals of this century, is the story of a young woman, Stepphy (Jane Levy), whose dreams tell us a profound amount about the nightmare she lives in. A high school senior with a stellar voice and a movie-star look, Stepphy is like the protagonist in one of those stories where the small-town girl dreams of being a star in Hollywood and eventually makes it big while falling in love with the dreamy, handsome man. Bang Bang Baby is sort of this story, but it’s also a reflection on what makes the arc from rags to riches, from small town to big city, and from battered to loved, such powerful escapism.
Stepphy has made it through the first round at the American Ingénue Talent Competition, but her sick, alcoholic father burns the acceptance letter and any chance of her being able to leave her small Canadian town. After she is picked up drunk and alone at her high school prom by Fabian, a creep that works at the local power plant, Stepphy enters into a fever dream where Bobby Shore, the Elvis-like stud who stars in her favorite movies, comes to her small town and stays with her. Soon the entire town becomes mad when the gas leak that caused Stepphy’s delusions spreads across the sprawl.
St Jules’ film, although heavily influenced by sci-fi b-movies from the 50s, shares uncanny similarities with Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo–about a woman who escapes her abusive husband by way of the local cinema where one of the characters leaps off the screen to share his love for her. A similar phenomenon seems to be at work in Stepphy: every love song seems like it is being sung to her, every compliment to the girl on-screen feels like it’s been personally crafted for her.
The moments of fantasy are blissful, but underneath the romance, the whimsy, and the makeup, they are unmistakably sad. Little self-reflexive quirks, like when Bobby Shore and his German producer are frozen until Stepphy enters the scene, or when many of the romantic sequences intentionally don’t hide that they were clearly made on a soundstage, point up to the fact that the whole encounter with Bobby Shore is illusory in an amusing but heartbreaking way.
Other aesthetic flourishes work in painstakingly subtle ways. Justin Chatwin perfectly balances celebrity charm, self-absorption, and wooden caricature as he mesmerizingly conveys that he is just the product of Stepphy’s perception. The deliberate lighting that illuminates the characters like a spot-light in some sequences but recedes in others is an important signifier to deciphering illusions from truth.
The original 50s-inspired songs have a catchy and retro charm. The opening title song, Once Upon a Time, is vulnerable, deeply moving, and inspiring. As someone who leaves most musicals untouched, I was surprised how moved I was by Bang Bang Baby’s musical interludes. Rather than feeling forced or excessively long, these sequences are almost always grounded by the characters.
From the opening title sequence when Stepphy sings Once Upon a Time, lensed with vibrant hues, warm light, and soft focus, it’s clear that St. Jules is focused on the subjective. With the glamorous visuals and heavily produced song laid over the soundtrack, St Jules eventually cuts to show that Stephhy is in an empty high school auditorium with a few hecklers in the back balcony. The glamour is from the dreamy, first-person perspective.
When the film eventually becomes outlandishly surreal, it’s to reveal more about the characters. A failed hand model’s right palm conflates like a balloon, Stepphy’s alcoholic father has a bottle stuck and bulging in his stomach, and perhaps most tragically, a small bulge in Stepphy’s uterus starts violently shifting: after the purple gas envelops the town, small hang-ups in the characters are surreally amplified to funny and shocking proportions.
The film engages with our fantasies, uses them for wish-fulfillment, and makes sure that it reveals the warmth but ultimate flaws in the coping mechanism. We can see ourselves holding onto an abusive relationship while escaping to other places: no purple mist required. It’s the dark reasons behind the delusions that makes Bang Bang Baby powerful.