As young men clad in leather jackets leap and twirl down a dark street, the opening scene of “Please Baby Please” immediately draws a visual parallel to the classic romantic musical “West Side Story,” which begins with rival gang members dancing around the city until they meet and conflict ensues. But Amanda Kramer’s “Please Baby Please” is no tragic, heterosexual love story, even though its hyper-stylized look and feel draws inspiration from those grand old school musicals, awash in Technicolor sets and costumes and black-and-white ideas of masculinity and femininity. Set in the 1950s, Kramer’s film takes traditional notions of romance and gender norms and spins them on their head, using the square domesticity of midcentury America as a backdrop for an awakening that is equal parts campy and introspective.
That awakening occurs to Suze (Andrea Riseborough) and Arthur (Harry Melling), a couple who are essentially married in name only, and who find themselves watching on, stunned, as the aforementioned greaser gang (known as The Young Gents) beat another couple they happen upon in the street. Suze and Arthur lock eyes with the gang members, namely Teddy (Karl Glusman), but there’s more lust than fear lodged in their gaze. For Arthur, the encounter unlocks a desire for men; for Suze, it unlocks a desire to be more masculine. The remainder of the film tracks their respective journeys toward discovering their real identity and sexuality, but it does so with a heightened visual artistry. The costumes (by Ashley Heathcock), hair (by Ledora Francis), and make-up (by Laramie Glen) are deliciously over-the-top, the vibrant, neon-lit sets intentionally (but dazzlingly) soundstage-artificial, the narrative punctuated by slinky music numbers that range from a lonely drag queen (Cole Escola) crooning into a pay phone to Suze enacting a BDSM fantasy with members of the Young Gents after becoming captivated by neighbor Maureen’s (a glowing Demi Moore at her most glamorous) life as a kept woman.
The camp edge to the material is carried over in the performances, most notably Riseborough, who snarls and vamps her way through every encounter with gusto. But there’s a tenderness there too (especially in Melling’s Arthur) that cuts through the crazy and underlines the mix of confusion and desire that both characters are feeling. “Please Baby Please” may be a mostly vibes movie as it winds its way from scene to scene, but just because its more pregnant with mood than concrete plot doesn’t mean it doesn’t have deeper commentary on gender roles and sexuality to mine. This is evident from the very opening scene, which subverts the traditionally masculine greaser image—the subculture that most predominantly calls to mind Marlon Brando’s star-making turn in 1953’s “The Wild One,” with his leather attire and slicked back hair and tough demeanor—opening up the gang’s members to include butch women and effeminate men. By challenging what was considered the norm back in the 1950s and in many ways is still seen as the status quo today, Kramer—just as Arthur within the movie poses questions about what it really means to be a man—both opens the matter up for discussion and exploration, and creates a colorful, inclusive world that people of all identities can see themselves in. Its influences may be apparent—some rockabilly here, a dash of John Waters there—but “Please Baby Please” is a witty and wild creation that stands all on its own.
“Please Baby Please” is playing in select theaters and will be available to watch on demand on all digital platforms on November 29. Runtime: 95 minutes.
Media review screener courtesy Music Box Films.