By Ryan Simpkins
Let's talk Baby Driver.
Came out on a Wednesday last summer’s June. Originally intended to get an August release but was pushed up after a positive reception at SXSW. Edgar Wright’s first American film with him at the helm as both writer and director. A movie I had been waiting for for months, if not years. (I’ll defend Wright as one of the most interesting directors alive today, utilizing his punchy editing and succinct sound design, along with every other medium exercised in filmmaking, to sell a joke. What a guy.) I was lucky enough to catch an advanced screening of the film the month before it’s release, the theater revving with electricity. People dancing in their seats to his iconic soundtrack, cheering for Baby to evade the police one more time, exploding when he succeeded to do so. Walking home from the theater felt like a dance, my friends and I spinning around to remind each other of that one scene we loved so much, jumping off tall curbsides in recounting that one song. I had never felt so amped by a film, so satisfied by something I had built up so much in my mind. Even Ansel Elgort was charming despite his history as a wooden plank in my eyes. Then, amid our excitement in original content and inspiration to make our own, my friend Nick said “The love story’s sort of... unrealistic, right?”
At first, I defended it. I countered by explaining that it was a fairytale, it was classic retelling. Wright works to reinvent genre, to play on its tropes. He was exploring bank robbers and get away drivers in heist movies-- of course there had to be the agreeable girl to ride off into the sunset with.
But I knew what Nick meant. And I knew my defense didn’t really matter. Sure, maybe Wright works to reinvent familiar genre, but here he had only reproduced myths of the feminine in characters flat and mimicking. Wright’s men leaped off the page, but his women weren’t even colored in. I have now seen Baby Driver six times: four in theaters and twice since I’ve bought it on iTunes. And every time my disappointment grows and astonishment fades as the female characters make the same mistakes, hit the same boring notes, and kiss the same men the way they always do, despite my mind willing them to do otherwise. While Wright shines in this showcase of his directorial skills, his film falters in his flat female characters who lack agency, personality, or originality, characterization practically pulled from a hat of love interest tropes.
To sum it up, Baby Driver is a boys club. It’s music video meets heist film, story told by soundtrack songs played by Baby, our ears and eyes (and unavoidable male gaze). Elgort plays Baby, a sweet kid in a bad situation: he listens to iPod after iPod to deal with a hearing ailment, makes garageband like music in his free time, and misses his mom (played by breathy Sky Ferreira, cause, sure) who died when he was young. But in between making playlists and caring for his handicapped foster father (CJ Jones), Baby is forced to drive criminals away from robbed banks to pay off a debt to gang leader mastermind Doc (played by ~super yikes~ Kevin Spacey). Doc only chooses the best of the best for these gigs, he “never does a job with the exact same crew twice”, save for Baby (a testament to his talent). This plot ploy introduces us to several big bad bank robbers, such as lovers Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), as well as Jamie Foxx’s Bats (plus Flea is there at one point, cause why not). These colorful characters (literally characterized by colors black, lavender, and red) come together at the films climax for the ultimate unexpected heist-- but of course, now Baby wants out. He wants to escape with his girl-next-door “waitress girlfriend” Deborah (name like the Beck song, or the T-Rex one, played by Lily James). So Baby bails, or tries to, and runs for his life to achieve a dream of romance that sounds like lyrics to a Chainsmokers song: “to head west... in a car I can’t afford with a plan I don’t have: just me, music, and the road.”
Throughout the film, Baby dreams of a 1950s fantasy: black and white as Deborah leans on a smooth car in a school girl skirt as Baby with his hair gelled up approaches. It’s simple and nostalgic, much like the rest of the film romanticizing American diners and classic rock. But this nostalgia reveals ignorance as Baby (and Wright) reminisce on a time of heightened heteronormativity and patriarchal control, the women in the film serving as 1950s pin-up girls, and nothing else.
First, there’s Deborah. Poor, beautiful Deborah. Lily James does her best. She’s classic Manic Pixie, a term coined by Nathan Rabin to describe Dream Girls who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures". Their feelings often ignore, their character often prop to serve male counter points, revealing their inner feelings and motivating their plot rather than having an independent plot or arch of their own. We first meet Deborah on a tricked out coffee run where the Harlem Shuffle plays in Baby’s headphones, car horns and wall art signing along to the song. A quirky girl in cheerful yellow with big purple headphones catches Baby’s eye as she passes below a graffiti mural of heavenly clouds and a big red heart: there she is, that’s our love interest. With a coy smile to Baby before her look away, Deborah is pinned under the film’s thumb as a girl different from the rest, a girl who gets it, in the eyes of Baby, a girl who will be his girlfriend and nothing more.
Deborah later enters the diner where he eats, dreamingly singing out the letters of his name to Carla Thomas’ tune “B..A...B...Y, ba-by”. She takes his order and just starts acting weird. She first notices his tape recording their conversation, a habit of his we’re familiar with, but one a stranger would see as crossing a line, right? Not Deborah. She picks it up and plays his game, speaking right into the tape’s mic. Sure. Rather than taking his order she begins to ramble, confessing suddenly her escapist dreams involving driving (omg, Baby drives) and listening to music (omg, Baby LOVES music). What has Deborah taking interest in this tight lipped, expressionless, monotoned (she’ll say “Mysterious”, I’ll say white bread) white boy is left unsaid, as female thoughts or rationale has no place in the film. And this immediate attraction is only the beginning of that issue.
As the film goes on, Baby keeps secrets from Deborah and grows more dangerous and violent, lying to her about his personal life and work while putting her in these dangerous contexts. Deborah is threatened by his gang, witnesses him shoot a man, and still decides to run off with him. Keep in mind, they have only been on a date or two at this point in their relationship, yet Deborah is willing to give up her whole life to escape with him, knowing once they start running (from the police, from the gang) they’ll never stop. But what independent life is she giving up, really?
The most we ever learn about our waitress is on one of her first dates with Baby in a laundromat (so domestic, wow). The two sit against machines spinning bright cycles of primary colors as their feet tap to the music playing from their shared headphones. They listen to a song with the same name as Baby’s new girlfriend (“Oh De-bo-ra, always look like a ze-b-ra” “Well I am wearing black-and-white so I guess you could call me Zebora” - and she’s funny too!) as he lip syncs along, knowing the words by heart, and watches a smiling Deborah bob her head. The camera pans around them the wash cycles behind them as they stand and spin around each other the same way to learn about where they’re from, what they’re like, all the while keeping their earbuds in place. The two stand close as Deborah leans against a washer, Baby standing over her. He tells her how his parents died. Deborah tells him she’s lost hers as well. Her eyes line with tears as she tells him “I don’t have much to keep me here anymore”, as if that’s Wright’s excuse. It’s honestly a lovely scene. It’s fresh and exciting, the audience able to feel the early first date jitters when you’re just getting to know someone you know you’ll fall in love with. But it’s as far into Deborah’s character as we get. Her orphaned backstory mirrors Baby’s, her simple dreams align with his, her only characterization is flirting with him and waiting on him, literally, both in the diner and in their lives, as she waits for him to drive off with her or waits for him on the outside of (spoiler alert) prison. Deborah serves as his yes-man, lacking any original character to serve anything other than his plot.
The other female character we really meet is Darling, characterized by her beauty. Darling, younger than Buddy, her boyfriend and often seen sucking a lollipop, has a flirtatious air about her, laughing at the men with things get stiff, singing to Baby rather than threatening him. The male gaze is strongest concerning Darling, the film featuring a few direct shots of her hips as she walks away. She’s sort of not much more than the Hot Girl of the team. However, I give a bit more credit to Gonzalez in Baby than most people do. There’s a moment in the film where things get tense: an arms deal has gone wrong, lots of cops are dead, and Bats reveals how much of a loose cannon he is. No ones seeming to like each other very much. Bats has Baby pull into a gas station to raid the convenience store while Darling and Buddy sit in the back, Darlings legs draped over Buddy’s as she brings her face inches from his. She strokes his ego, reminding him of his violence towards men who threatened his girl, his relationship. “Remember that time you killed that guy, cause he looked at me funny?” she asks, Buddy nods. Darling cocks her head, eyes serious, and nearly whispers “Bats just looked at me funny”. I like to believe that both Darling and Gonzalez know what they’re doing here: they’re playing with dangerous men, performing the part of sex kitten to gain control, or a least have a little fun. But I know this is kind to the film and it’s treatment of Darling, as she too is just meant to serve the plot.
Fastforward, final heist goes wrong, Baby’s on a run from the gang, the gang is on the run from the cops, and they all meet up at a musical shootout. Darling, for whatever reason, jumps from her cover and shoots off rounds in a fiery blaze. Of course, she dies, taking shots to the body to the tempo of Focus’ “Hocus Pocus”. Buddy yells in anguish, cursing Baby, sending him over the line from sweet-but-edgy father figure to fucking crazy violent bad guy. Her death motivates his descent into antagonism, providing a bad guy for Baby to contrast (proving to us that he is good) and defeat. But Darling’s death is not her own, it belongs to Buddy now, after all she did was show up, look hot, and die.
(I just wanna say that as I write this in a coffee shop a white boy in a Baby Driver Jacket - black vest, white collar and sleeves - and dollar store black sunglasses walked in. The influence of this film presented in real time. I wonder if he hits on his waitresses.)
I know this piece doesn’t sound like it, but I genuinely love Baby Driver. I truly believe it’s a feat in filmmaking to have an action film so well modernized, so grounded in this realm of fantasy that we can believe in, relate to, and root for. Wright’s editing and choreography are brilliantly repurposed for the sake of not just comedic timing but suspense, conflict. It represents characters with disabilities using actors who actually have them (CJ Jones is so so good) not as handicapped, but as people who move in stride, with Jones’ deaf character loving music in a deeper sense than auditorily because he feels it. Above all else, it’s fun. But this is why I think it’s all the more reason to recognize it for its faults. Imagine a Baby Driver I could watch without rolling my eyes, without a feeling of uncomfortability, without wanting to slap Deborah across the face and shake her out of her weird zombie drunk like state. I relate to Baby in its protagonists’ quirk and charm, and am then alienated by the way he looks at women like cardboard. Imagine if I could have my cake and eat it too.