Finding new talent is a thrill, that delectable shock when you hit on something that speeds your pulse and your synapses and says, “Hey, bet you’ve never seen it done quite like this before.” Getting that thrill is what the Discovery Programme at the Toronto International Film Festival is all about. It’s a showcase of forty films featuring the best new directors from around the world. There’s a bunch of Canadian films in the Discovery Programme, cuz hey there’s nothing wrong with a homer. Two of them happen to have a lot in common. Both Bang Bang Baby and Songs She Wrote About People She Knows are musicals with a hesitant lead finding her way to her dreams. Now those dreams are pesky things, and they never quite turn out the way you expect.
The flashier of the two films by far is Jeffrey St. Jules’s Bang Bang Baby, a heady throwback to 50s sci-fi and the beach party films of the 60s. The winsome Stepphy (Jane Levy) dreams of escaping the tiny Canadian berg of Lonely Arms and making it as a singer, even performing with the dreamy heartthrob Bobby Shore (Justin Chatwin). She wins a place in the American Ingenue Singing Competition in Manhattan, but her ill father (Peter Stormare), himself a failed country musician, refuses to let her go. Forced to stay and care for him, she soon finds herself cornered by the admiring but creepy Fabian (David Reale), head of the local plant manufacturing a strange Purple Mist. Her dreams are crushed, until she stumbles on none other than Bobby Shore, stuck in the sticks with his German manager, his broken-down automobile in need of repair. Will Bobby be Stepphy’s ticket out? Will these two crazy kids find love? And what’s with that Purple Mist and the strange mutations it’s bringing on the townsfolk, a hugely swollen hand here or a sinister black beak there? Who cares?! Because there’s a whole lot of rollicking good song goin’ on.
Born in Montreal but raised in Nova Scotia, St. Jules piles the style on thick, with neon colours, blatant lip-synching, rear projection and songs that hark directly back to the teen crooners of 50s rock’n’roll. As the mutations crop up with ever growing frequency, we get a dollop of Cronenberg body horror thrown in for good measure. It’s a wild hodgepodge, and it gets creaky as St. Jules tries to keep his feverish hybrid on-track. Certain scenes, like the rave-up in the club when Stepphy and Bobby duet on “Bang Bang Baby”, replete with go-go girls and a beatnik in a black beret, just crackle with goofball fun. Other scenes don’t play as strongly, with Stormare’s possessive weirdo of a sick dad and Bobby Shore’s emotional two-face wearing thin over repetitive themes. As a meditation on what happens when family responsibilities clash with one’s dreams, Bang Bang Baby is pretty crazy, but deliberately so. If he can keep all those ideas moving in the same direction like swift-spinning hula hoops, Jeffrey St. Jules is a talent to watch.
Songs She Wrote About People She Knows shares Bang Bang Baby‘s straining against frustrated dreams, and music, and shocks of red hair. It’s a rougher, more homespun tale, relying on direct charm rather than exponential stylistic heft. Directed by Vancouver’s Kris Elgstrand, it’s his first solo feature following a joint helmer in 2011 called Döppleganger Paul. Carol (Arabella Bushnell) is a timid thirty-something office-worker who takes her art therapy as an opportunity to send vicious yet oddly sedate pop songs to the people in her life. Unsurprisingly, these paeans of pissed-off pain aren’t appreciated, even leading to restraining orders. The song she sends her boss (Brad Dryborough), however (a little gem called “Asshole Dave”), has the completely unintended effect of inspiring him to take up his languishing dream of being a rockstar. He quits his job, declaring Carol his muse and insisting she help him find his way back to rock inspiration. Carol is gobsmacked, and it’s pretty hilarious. What follows is a patchwork odyssey, as Carol and Dave find themselves working with a strange record producer, Silent G (Ross Smith). As Dave flounders from one idea to the next, Carol’s awkward singing begins to take form in surprisingly beautiful songs, and she finds the courage to confront the heart of her own negativity.
Elgstrand’s feature has its share of rough edges, with the feel of a low-budget Canadian indie. The characters are really believable though, and the story is rife with offbeat humour. Lensed by Amy Belling, it was actually shot on Super 16mm film, a rarity where digital has overtaken almost all productions at this point. The use of film adds to the authenticity of what these people are going through, and its gauzy grain fits perfectly with Dave’s love of old-school analog recording gear. There’s a strong connection between the principal performers, too. Elgstrand and Arabella Bushnell have been a couple for 18 years, having met doing children’s theatre 23 years ago. And he’s worked almost as long with Brad Dryborough. So of course he wrote the story with Arabella and Brad in mind. Just like Carol’s barbed tunes, Songs She Wrote About People She Knows succeeds with its honesty. As Elgstrand observes, “There is something so true and human about our desire to define ourselves, to push back against the colourless world we sometimes find ourselves living (or trapped) in. I think that struggle is important, interesting and often hilarious.”
Songs She Wrote About People She Knows debuts at TIFF on Monday, September 8th at 5:00pm, and screens again on Wednesday, September 10th at 3:30pm and Saturday, September 13th at 5:45pm. All screenings are at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. For more info, see here.
Bang Bang Baby debuts at TIFF on Monday, September 8th as well, at 7:15pm. It screens again on Wednesday, September 10th at 4:15pm and on Friday, September 12th at 6:00pm. All screenings are at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto. For more info, see here.