Please Baby Please

The 1950s, with their pop culture focus on family mores and codified gender presentation, are a fertile albeit well-trodden playground for gender bending and gender exploration. Amanda Kramer’s latest feature film picks up with a leather-clad, finger-snapping street gang, beating some hapless passers-by to a pulp. Unfortunately, they are spotted by Arthur (Harry Melling) and Suze (Andrea Riseborough), frozen like deer in headlights.

The gang lets them go, reminding them to keep their distance, but the encounter leaves the seemingly happily-married couple aware of latent fantasies and unspoken desires. Soft-spoken Arthur has a crisis of masculinity (if men are supposed to be brutes, where does he remain?), while Suze imagines the freedom that comes from embracing her own aggressive, sadomasochistic, unwomanly tendencies. With a constant drums and saxophone score, Please Baby Please is a neon-soaked paean to gender nonconformity against the bubble-gum and beatings of pulp fiction.

The marketing description of Please Baby Please says it sits somewhere between West Side Story and John Waters’ Cry-Baby. Superficially, this is a fantastically accurate statement. The dialogue is the cheesy, cruddy-JDs dialogue is undercut with the delightfully vulgar, and exaggerated line readings tie the piece together. The costume design grows in bedazzlement and exaggeration as the film progresses into Arthur’s and Suze’s psyche, melding glittery forbidden dreams with reality as both experiment with gender presentations and identities outside their cis- and heteronormative marriage.

Andrea Riseborough, somehow ageless, always fascinating, is impossible to look away from. She makes Suze both an active participant and a confused, lost observer, opening up a world she never knew existed. Trepidation =gives way to enthusiasm far sooner than it does in Arthur’s journey. Here, Melling manages to avoid the clichés of a repressed, straight-laced husband under a genuine affection for his wife and desire to maintain safety and order; only when it is clear she will never be satisfied with his comfortable life – and the threats of bolder youths are always at the door – does he cautiously, tenderly commence his explorations.

The supporting cast eats up the scenery with aplomb. Demi Moore makes a strange, compelling cameo as Maureen, an older woman with her tastes and needs figured out (“Men like anything that bores them,” she drawls to Suze as she embarks on another pleasure-seeking journey, “we are the fantasy.) Dana Ashbrook, in a single scene, offers an alternative masculine power that balances the freneticism of youth.

Does Please Baby Please break new ground? Possibly not. Does it entertain, thrill, and captivate continually, using its cast of familiar character faces to great effect? Absolutely. Kramer’s vision is a raucous delight that will grow on every rewatch.

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