Chuck Chuck Baby, receiving its World Premiere at EIFF, is a film that kind of falls between two stools. On one hand it functions in the mode of social realism, depicting a sweet and charming lesbian romance in a fundamentally kitchens sink mode. It’s also pretty much a musical, with the characters launching into popular songs to express their feelings, though the film becomes such by stealth, with one noticing after a while that it’s occurred once too often for it be anything other than intentional. This lack of commitment to one mode or another is symptomatic of some imbalance in the writing, yet some lovely performances and a real joy in female friendships overcome most of the issues.
Helen (Louise Brealey) is a downtrodden woman with a horridly unusual living arrangement. She lives in the spare room of the house she still shares with oafish husband Gary (Celyn Jones) while he brings up a new baby with much younger girlfriend Amy (Emily Fairn). Helen just about tolerates this so she can care for Gary’s mother Gwen (Sorcha Cusack), with whom she has a close bond after giving Helen a place to stay after the young woman left care. A face from past returns after 20 years ; Joanne (Annabel Scholey), an attractive and vivacious women who fascinated a young Helen and who has returned to manage the estate of her late father. But Joanne also has a dark past – bars on her bedroom windows suggesting an awful childhood at the hands of her dad.
Besides the tentative queer romance at the centre of the film, Chuck Chuck Baby is at its best exploring female friendships in general. There’s a real camaraderie between Helen and her more outgoing friends at the chicken factory that gives the film its title. Despite Helen’s shyness, she has a supportive circle, and any homophobia comes from the hints at Joanne’s past and ignorant ranting from the slightly one-note buffoon Gary. The scenes between Helen and the bedridden, dying Gwen are tender and moving, again hinting at Helen’s past without saying too much.
It’s perhaps a tonally counter-intuitive comparison, but one film that springs to mind is Lars von Trier‘s Dancer in the Dark in terms of how both films enliven their drudgery with inexpert but full-blooded musical performances. The juxtapositions between the mise-en-scene and flights of fancy aren’t anywhere near as brutal as the frankly traumatic Björk vehicle, yet the two films come across as awkward siblings and two good examples of the modern trend of musicals that eschew the glitz and camp traditional for the genre.
Chuck Chuck Baby has some glaring flaws – underwritten characters, something of a pantomime villain in Gary, an uneasy balance between the sweet whimsy of its romance and the frankly harrowing backstory – yet ultimately feels like a tonic. It’s unashamedly romantic and feels precision-tooled to chime with the audiences that lapped up ‘Strictly Ken Loach’ social realist-hoofers like Sunshine on Leith or Greatest Days. Both Louise Brealey and Annabel Scholey bring more than enough heart and soul for their romance to work, even if Helen’s personality has to be gently prised out like a winkle.
Screened as part of Edinburgh International Film Festival 2023