Chuck Chuck Baby

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Chuck Chuck Baby
"Janis Pugh’s ability to blend crowdpleasing comedy and emotional poignancy should not be underestimated."

Sometimes things fit together when you least expect them to and while a marriage of musical, a sapphic will they/won’t they love story, very British humour and a chicken factory might not immediately sound like a match made in heaven, Janis Pugh’s ability to blend crowdpleasing comedy and emotional poignancy should not be underestimated.

Perhaps it's because everything in her film, no matter how heightened, is rooted in a real place, whether it's the feelings of the characters or even the music - it does, indeed, feel as its initial intertitle suggests like a “land not so far away”.

That land, specifically, is Wales, and it’s where Helen (Louise Brealey) is living a less than happy life. Stuck in the “baby’s room” for the child she sadly never saw arrive, her casually sexist husband Gary (Celyn Jones) has moved his much younger airheaded girlfriend Amy (Emily Fairn) and baby in while still expecting Helen to look after his terminally ill mum Gwen (Sorcha Cusack) and pay half the rent. It’s a classic kitchen sink set-up but Pugh, while employing the sort of ear for comedy shown by the likes of Victoria Wood, Alan Bennett and Caroline Ahearn, also goes on to breathe life into even the smallest characters beyond simplistic stereotypes.

Work at a chicken packing plant might not be the average person’s idea of escape, but it’s there that Helen finds solidarity and warmth among the other women working the line. Her determination is also allowed to display itself in the first of many songs that Pugh slots diagetically into the soundtrack. As she goes to work she joins in as Neil Diamond sings I Am I Said as it plays on the radio - surely the most emotional singalong since Bridget Jones mimed All By Myself. Pugh and her cast, however, go one better, actually singing along with songs that are physically played - on ghetto blasters or record players through the film - and which also include a Julie Felix rendition of Dirty Old Town and Goin’ Out Of My Head by Little Anthony and the Imperials. The technique allows the emotions of the songs to enter into dialogue with the emotions of the film with surprisingly weighty results.

Helen’s life already feels fragile as she knows she’s soon to lose the rock like support of Gwen, scenes between the two might feature quite a lot of advice from the forthright older woman but they also ripple with unspoken emotions. Then comes a further disruption, the return of a former nextdoor neighbour, Joanne (Annabel Scholey), who she had an unacted on crush on back in the day. The appearance of the much more, at least outwardly, self-confident Joanne opens up the possibility of something different for Helen, the question being whether she dare take a risk on it.

Pugh nurtures this spark carefully, while also letting blousier moments play out. The women at the factory, most notably Beverley Rudd’s devil-may-care Paula, give a sense of the community backdrop of the film, where bonding comes from a shared night out and men are not to be relied upon. The prop department also deserve plaudits, given that no real chicken carcasses were used in the film, not that you’d notice. The writer/director also gives a real sense of the ambivalence of that thing we call “community”, in that shared lives and experience can provide solidarity but also ammunition, as nicknames and memories from childhood can never quite be jettisoned.

Brealey proves her dextrous handling of comedy and emotion in a supporting role in Brian And Charles was no one-off as she easily steps up to the lead role here. The chemistry between her and Scholey is solid and believable and Brealey brings home the tension between Helen’s longing for something fresh and her fear of taking a step towards it. Special mention to Fairn, who thanks not least to a script that shows some empathy, manages to stop Amy becoming a complete stereotype, while still getting to deliver some broad comedy zingers, not least her Travis Bickle-esque pronunciation of the word “vapourised”. Pugh approaches all this with vigour and her keen ear for comedy is matched by an eye for framing that finds lyricism in unexpected places. Her scenes of musical choreography are simple enough so that they don’t feel as though they’re throwing us out of the moment within the film but also effective in terms of delivering an extra bit of something. The end result is poetry - and quite a bit of poultry - in motion, joyously delivered with tremendous heart.

Reviewed on: 21 Sep 2023
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Romance unfolds at a chicken packing factory.

Director: Janis Pugh

Writer: Janis Pugh

Starring: Louise Brealey, Annabel Scholey, Celyn Jones, Sorcha Cusack

Year: 2023

Runtime: 101 minutes

Country: UK


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