Chuck Chuck Baby is a stylish story about two women struggling to find their place in the world, bolstered by two fantastic performances and well-tuned music.
One of the most difficult things about films, and inconveniently the most important, is the restriction of just two or three hours to create fully-fledged characters with authentic relationships and backstories. Interestingly, this is both the biggest strength and most glaring flaw of Chuck Chuck Baby, a touching drama that’s so rooted in emotional history that it sometimes forgets to bring these stakes into the present. Janis Pugh’s directorial debut is a social drama about a middle-aged woman named Helen (Louise Bradley), whose monotonous life is turned upside down when her childhood friend Joanne (Annabel Scholey) returns to town and stirs up a whirlwind of repressed emotions for the two women. It’s a story about forgotten feelings, missed opportunities, and second chances that flirts with some pressing commentary about what it means to be a woman in a society so clearly dominated by masculinity.
Within the opening five minutes of Chuck Chuck Baby, Pugh’s unique directorial voice is already overwhelmingly clear. With elaborate musical numbers, sharp-witted comedy, and a real eye for style that shines through in each moment, it’s obvious that Pugh has a distinct vision for this story and it’s not what audiences are going to be used to. This unapologetic confidence is both a good and bad thing for Chuck Chuck Baby: while it sets the project apart from the countless other low-budget dramas that deal with similar themes, it makes for a pretty jarring introduction that assumes the audience’s interest before actually earning it.
Beyond the obvious struggles of her situation (the repetitive work, demanding home life, and emotional instability, to name a few), we’re not really given much chance to connect with Helen before Chuck Chuck Baby throws us into her teary-eyed operatics and complex love life. This will undoubtedly deter plenty of viewers, but those who persevere will quickly find themselves sucked into a story that quickly unfolds with meaning and purpose. Once the dynamic between Helen and Joanne really starts to develop, allowing Chuck Chuck Baby to fully explore its important themes rather than just offering surface-level music and distractions, the film becomes something incredibly captivating. Bradley and Scholey have a tangible chemistry that instantly sells their characters’ decades of history, and the film’s poignant exploration of womanhood begins to blossom through their deep-rooted romance.
The two women are victims of a world that doesn’t want to see them succeed, forcing them into laborious, dehumanizing work to earn money that barely keeps a roof over their heads. The biting cynicism of the story is evident, and it’s through this narrative boldness that Chuck Chuck Baby earns the audience’s attention and raises the stakes of what otherwise would’ve been a very formulaic romance. There isn’t much to separate the actual story from ones that have been told endless times before, but Chuck Chuck Baby still manages to feel important and fresh with its immersive cinematography and extremely likeable characters.
Unfortunately, the problems with Chuck Chuck Baby’s beginning apply even more strongly to its conclusion: it’s overly stylized, unnecessarily melodramatic, and much longer than it needs to be. The descent into excessive eccentricity actually undermines plenty of the genuine emotion that precedes it, as though the film is unable to decide whether it wants to be taken seriously or laughed alongside. That barrier between comedy and drama isn’t quite as distinct as it needs to be, with the constant jokes actually overshadowing those moments that could’ve been really devastating with a tighter script. The story is constantly trying to undo its own sad moments with happy resolutions, but if it had the confidence to let those moments linger without comedic relief then Chuck Chuck Baby would’ve ultimately left a much stronger impression.
But to be clear: none of this is to say that Chuck Chuck Baby isn’t enjoyable. When it really capitalizes on its story and characters without trying too hard to subvert expectations, the movie soars. There’s a really powerful drama inside Chuck Chuck Baby that’s elevated by the fresh vision of a talented and innovative filmmaker. Through her debut feature, director Janis Pugh has left a huge impression that, while not always perfect, will undoubtedly raise awareness of issues that are so clearly personal to her and pique audiences’ interests in what she’s going to do next.
Chuck Chuck Baby had its World Premiere at the 2023 Edinburgh Film Festival in August. Read our list of films to watch at the 2023 Edinburgh Film Festival!