EIFF 2023 – Chuck Chuck Baby
A woman stuck in an inescapable living situation reconsiders her place when an unrequited love returns to town in Janis Pugh’s Chuck Chuck Baby.
Feeling suffocated by surroundings is a common issued the world over. The idea that your upbringing comes with built-in limitations that make social mobility very difficult is something many can relate to. It can be very difficult to escape the shackles of your upbringing and achieve something beyond what the surroundings offer. This naturally leads to feeling stuck and unsatisfied by the cards life has dealt.
This is at the root of Chuck Chuck Baby‘s world. Helen (Louise Brealey) lives in a small Welsh town that is visibly run down and appears to have been forgotten about by the world outside its borders. The people are stagnant, bored, ignorant -in many cases- and have given up on the prospect of their life being any more than what it currently is. The town is almost stuck in a bubble where nothing of note changes over a long period of time.
Helen is a compelling protagonist because she resents how trapped she feels and lacks comfort in her living situation. She lives with her ex-husband who has a baby with a younger woman while caring for his dying mother during the day and working in a chicken factory during the night. Helen has no space to call her own and is tolerated because she provides the service of care. The early moments of the film do an excellent job establishing the key details and the claustrophobic nature of a life that Helen has no control over.
One thing Chuck Chuck Baby does that stands out is its use of musical numbers to detail the feelings of the characters. An early example of this summarises Helen’s frustration with her life as she drives to work and others over the course of the film provide similar insights into the current headspace of those singing. The numbers are known songs carefully chosen so the lyrics connect perfectly to those singing them. It’s an effective and stylish shorthand to deliver a lot of information quickly so the viewer can be informed as to what the characters are dealing with before observing the actions motivated by those feelings. It isn’t always clear whether the musical numbers are happening in reality or some sort of fantasy interlude that doesn’t interact with the real world but they are effectively deployed and become part of the DNA of the film without being overused.
The musical numbers offer a notable contrast to the realistic depiction of the other elements. Helen and her coworkers gossiping, making jokes and playing games to pass the time in their mundane jobs comes across as down to earth and lived-in, women end up with children to different fathers due to the lack of options afforded by the surroundings, dilapidated houses with gardens full of junk add to the depressed setting and the dialogue compliments this by being very natural. The fences between each house being an indicator of the ignorance and shame that defines the residents is a powerful image that pays off wonderfully and compliments Celyn Jones’ Gary’s shockingly intolerant speech highlighting that there’s a sense of perverse pride in being unwelcoming to anyone who dares to be the least bit different to what is considered the norm. It’s a forgotten community isolated by its inability to join a world that embraces change and a believably depressing place to be a part of.
Change is in the air when Joanne (Annabel Scholey) returns to town to deal with the aftermath of her father’s death. Her arrival makes waves within the community because she is someone who got out. It’s very rare for that to happen and rarer still for them to return for any reason so Joanna is the subject of much discussion. Added to that is that she left under circumstances conducive to gossip and is a lesbian which offends the closed-minded sensibilities of many of the residents.
Much of Chuck Chuck Baby is built around the love story between Helen and Joanne. It’s established that Helen had feelings for Joanne years ago but didn’t even have the courage to speak to her. It turns out that those feelings went both ways so right from the beginning there’s a sense of wasted time and opportunity. It all feeds into their intolerant surroundings preventing people from being anything that deviates from the accepted norm and what that takes from people. Joanne is someone who couldn’t accept the box she was being forced into and lashed out but Helen follows the example of most by biting her lip and grudgingly accepting what is expected of her.
The love story is endearing and greatly enhanced by the natural chemistry of the actors. Some of the developments and interactions come across as forced in the way they’re presented but the actors do a lot to make up for that. The progression of their connection is believable and Helen’s development from being afraid to even speak to Joanne to embracing the person she truly is works well. There is a fascinating shift from Joanne being characterised as an exotic addition to an unchanging landscape to a fleshed-out person with her own anxieties and hangups. It’s a gradual and meaningful shift in perspective framed through Helen’s growing understanding of the person she once only admired from afar. The heightened reality brought by the musical numbers adds to the wish-fulfilment aspect of connecting with someone who was once nothing more than a fantasy.
Helen’s strongest relationship is with her ex-husband’s mother Gwen (Sorcha Cusack). Gwen is the mother she never had and she repays the kindness shown to her by making her final days as comfortable as possible. There is always a time limit on their relationship as established early on so it’s immediately clear that Gwen’s death will occur at some point and the loss will be devastating to Helen. Time is spent exploring their connection so that the inevitable loss has weight and their scenes together are among the best that the film has to offer. Gwen is understanding, supportive and encouraging in ways that push Helen outside of her comfort zone to challenge the situation she has become stuck in. It’s sweet, darkly funny in places and always engaging.
Chuck Chuck Baby is ultimately a very positive and hopeful film about the power of love and the influence it can have on someone’s life. Helen has her life massively changed by two people who express their love for her. Broadly the message is to not accept any limitations placed on you by external factors and fight for the life you want rather than resigning yourself to being stuck in an intolerable situation. The positivity shines like a beacon through the darkness of an unpleasant community.
A positive and hopeful film about the power of love and the influence it can have on someone’s life that boasts positivity shining like a beacon through the darkness of an unpleasant community.
We’d love to know your thoughts on this and anything else you want to discuss. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter or just leave a comment in the comment section below. You’ll need an account for Disqus but it’s easy to set up. Don’t forget to share your rating in the “User Review” box.
If you want to chat with me directly, I’m also on Twitter
- Helen as a compelling and relatable antagonist
- using musical numbers to offer insights into the characters
- the realistic depiction of the setting and associated elements
- the waves Joanne’s arrival makes
- the endearing Helen/Joanne love story
- Helen and Gwen’s relationship
- establishing the time limit and working to give the end of that relationship the necessary weight
- a positive and hopeful film about the power of love and the influence it can have on someone’s life
- the lack of consistency and clarity about the musical numbers occurring in reality
- some of the developments in the Helen and Joanne relationship feeling forced