Baby Driver might just be the biggest surprise of this entire summer, at least for me. Following the struggles of a young, music-loving getaway driver codenamed “Baby” as he tries to escape the criminal world he doesn’t belong in while falling for a young woman he met at a diner, the film is a rollicking romp that manages to somehow be a vibrant action movie, a tender romance, a salute to music of all kinds, and a powerful coming-of-age tale all at once, and it’s impossible to watch without being alternately thrilled and charmed. One of the many reasons the movie works so well is that it gradually reveals more and more about Baby instead of dumping everything on us in the opening act, keeping us curious and eager to learn more about who exactly our protagonist is, and there are plenty of flashbacks and conversations that give us gradually-expanding glimpses into his past. But there’s one element especially of our main character that’s constantly teased and hinted at, so close and yet so out of reach, in an excellent display of how to make an audience curious: Baby’s real name. Spoilers ahead!
Step one the movie takes in making us curious about Baby's real name is having characters in it mimic our own reactions to learning that the protagonist is named Baby. Even in a world of thieves and murderers, a world in which everyone goes by a code name, Baby’s take everyone he meets with surprise and disbelief. Everyone is shocked by the name he chooses, from his heist partners to his love interest Deborah, who responds to this revelation with the line “Your name’s baby. B-A-B-Y Baby," completely incredulous. Lurking under all of this is tension created by the question all the characters want to ask but don’t: "what’s your real name?" This is only reinforced by the declaration by other characters, like Jamie Fox’s “Bats,” that the codenames they use aren’t their real names either, until we’re just waiting for the shoe to drop and Baby’s to come out.
Next, the movie gives us a tremendous pump-fake. Baby’s day-to-day life is occupied by taking care of his foster father, a deaf and mute man confined to a wheelchair, and when shit inevitably hits the fan Baby knows he needs to find him someplace to live safe from the hell that’s about to break loose. Loading him into a car, he tears away from their home, and the next scene opens on a suburb somewhere with Baby’s voice saying the words “my name is Jonathan.” For a moment we jump, wondering if this is Baby’s real name, finally revealed after all this time. But as the camera pans down we see Baby speaking into a recorder, and we realize he's talking about about his foster father as he leaves the old man at a care center. Once again we’re teased with the knowledge that baby has a real name that we don’t know, only becoming more and more curious as to what it is.
Finally, the movie reveals Baby’s name in the last few minutes, but doesn’t even have Baby do it. Instead it’s Deborah, his love interest and the audience-POV character, who tells us in an aside that “Even though I heard it so many times in the court case, I still can't get used to the fact that your real name is Miles.” Finally we have our answer, slipped into the script so casually that I quite literally jumped in surprise when I heard it. This subtle reveal was the perfect ending to the way the movie teased and hinted at Baby’s name, alternately thrilling and frustrating us with our knowledge (and lack thereof) or our protagonist. Small touches like these are vital in creating a mood, and they’re felt in Baby Driver in the way we lean forward in our seats, hungry for any knowledge about baby himself. We feel the cumulative effect of all these small touches. We noticed them. We just don’t necessarily notice that we notice them.
With excitement and optimism,