College films come in two distinct flavors. First: Films representative of their makers’ jejune worldviews and inexperience, often seen in student films. Second: Films that capture the lightning in a bottle of early-adulthood liberated caprice. Call it the confidence of immaturity, but anybody can make the second flavor of college film at any point in their lives, provided their lives don’t snuff out that spark.
Amanda Kramer is one such person, and her third feature, Please Baby Please, exemplifies that specific, unbridled energy perhaps better than her previous two (and even her fourth, Give Me Pity!, which graced screens at September’s Fantastic Fest). Please Baby Please is the kind of movie a freshman or sophomore might conjure on their dorm room bed, riding a contact-high from absorbing all that a liberal arts education offers to malleable minds. The film’s influences hint at literature, both contemporary and the classic canon, theater and drama, American history, and gender studies, turned into the mélange of Kramer’s screenplay (co-scribed with repeat collaborator Noel David Taylor). With Please Baby Please, they’ve made a testament to selfhood in flux.
Kramer’s protagonists, newlyweds Suze (Andrea Riseborough) and Arthur (Harry Melling), start off their marital bliss by arriving at the wrong place at precisely the wrong time: A murder scene right outside their apartment building. A drift of greasers, who kick off Please Baby Please with a slinking dance number, has just indulged in the most beloved of gangster pastimes, bludgeoning innocent passersby to death. Once they finish their fun, they look up, notice Suze and Arthur staring in horror, certain they’re next; the gang, in an uncharacteristic move, lets them go free. The savage shock of the crime lingers with the couple, however, and its effect is transformative. From this unsparing introduction, Please Baby Please cracks open unexamined desires lurking in Suze and Harry. As they examine those desires, their relationship mutates. Dark comedy gives way to melodrama, which gives way to flushed horny yearning, which gives way bursts of violence, all bookended with musical interludes featuring Suze gyrating and vamping with the Gents as her backup dancers, all in various states of undress.
In style and spirit, Please Baby Please embraces flamboyance. Kramer appears to reject the notion that less is more; for her, more is more. Specifically, the more that’s layered upon the story’s foundation, the more the foundation strengthens. You’d think that piling ballast on ballast would backfire and create instability instead of depicting it. You’d be wrong. Please Baby Please, not with a small amount of glee, happily resolves to be and to do too much, bit by bit ticking up the dial on set design, lighting, writing, performances, and subterranean neuroses until hitting a crescendo in its final dance cue. The excess works, mirroring the explosive release of Arthur and Suze’s muted appetites and identity crises after their initial encounter with the gang, called the Young Gents. Kramer’s filmmaking is vibrant, vital, easy to swallow while retaining astounding verbal density; you may wish for subtitles and a notepad to follow along with the near-constant back-and-forth between her characters.
But that’s a feature, not a bug. Listening to Riseborough chew on Suze’s grievances over the privileges of manhood, curling her lips and flashing her eyes with each syllable, is endlessly entertaining. A chameleonic actor seemingly capable of shapeshifting in each one of her roles, Riseborough is tasked with remaking Suze over and over again across the film’s run time, from fiery and indignant to thuggish and hyper-masculine. Consider the leap from her last film, this month’s To Leslie, where she plays a wreck, to this one, where she’s the one doing the wrecking. But also consider her co-star, Melling, the only Harry Potter alumni whose raw talent equals Daniel Radcliffe’s. Riseborough is good; Melling is extraordinary.
Arthur, in Melling’s portrayal, is a volcano. He hushes his speech at first, then builds to pyroclastic outbursts of abiding resentment. Everyone—Suze, their friends, Teddy (Karl Glusman), the Young Gent he hesitantly lusts after—habitually ribs Arthur on account of mismatched male ego. Arthur is neither burly nor tough. He doesn’t choose violence to solve conflicts, and the internal struggle to reconcile his soft masculinity against social expectation is self-inflicted torture. Melling balances the conflict with wild-eyed confidence, dramatizing Arthur as an unfortunate soul who has kept a white-knuckle grip on himself his whole life to avoid losing his dignity. It’s a colossal performance in a tightly controlled film.
Kramer keeps her scale small and her scope wide. The film’s stylized dialogue about sexuality and gender identities has titanic intellectual rigor, while locations are limited mostly to humble rooms where her characters are stifled by challenges to their self-preconceptions. Please Baby Please prizes flash—there aren’t many films this year with an aesthetic this proudly pronounced—but there’s endless substance, relevant to both its 1950s satire as well as 2022’s seismic cultural fluctuations, to justify Kramer’s love of pizazz. That’s her prime creative space: A confluence where boisterous, florid entertainment feeds into mental wrestling matches that’ll wrinkle the brain.
Director: Amanda Kramer
Writer: Amanda Kramer, Noel David Taylor
Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Harry Melling, Karl Glusman, Demi Moore, Ryan Simpkins, Cole Escola, Alisa Torres, Jaz Sinclair, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jake Choi
Release Date: October 28, 2022
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.