This mixed-bag British coming out drama doesn’t quite come out.
A film with scenes of a trim 16-year-old schoolboy dawdling decoratively outside a public toilet hoping a trick will stroll by would seem to have little chance of passing the “concerned” cops, paranoid parents, rabid religiosos, and other busybody groups that ruthlessly monitor such stuff – at least in America. Leave it to the British to buck this trend.
Simon Shore’s Get Real not only focuses lovingly, comically on such scenes; it dares to portray them with a sunny palette, in broad daylight, with less of that sense of anxiety and terror than we usually see in movies like this. This points to both the strengths and weaknesses of this often engaging queer coming-out drama. The welcome light touch that keeps Steven Carter’s preoccupation with finding a boyfriend from becoming a dreary guilt-fest also ultimately drains some of the drama. Even in scenes that would seem to demand a certain harshness – various gaybashings, a police raid on the park, a very public coming-out – there’s not much doubt that things will eventually turn out fine. The fact that the story is set in the upper-middle-class suburb of Basingstroke – a conscious attempt to “move away from the gritty social realism prevalent in British films today,” according to the press notes – only furthers this notion.
Steven Carter (Ben Silverstone) is a queer boy for the ’90s; his closet door is always a bit ajar. Unable to entirely suppress who he is, but not quite ready to confront those around him, he nonetheless spends much of his time in plain view on a park bench in front of a public john, obviously trying to score, and oblivious of being discovered. He blatantly moons over high school heartthrob and track star John Dixon (Brad Gorton), triggering the wrath of Dixon’s ‘phobic mates, who instantly divine the faggot behind the facade of sensitive young intellectual. Steven’s home life is humdrum; he finds solace from his dimwitted bourgeois parents with his neighbor Linda (the very wonderful Charlotte Brittain), a sarcastic but simpatico fag hag who has her own romantic problem trying to seduce her driving instructor. Window dressing and subplots are provided by other mildly angst-ridden teens falling in and out of love: Steven’s best friend Mark, who’s after Wendy, the editor of the school magazine, whose best friend is Jessica, who’s cluelessly pursuing Steven after dumping homophobic Kevin, Steven’s main nemesis.
One of the unusual things about Get Real is the way it plays the public sex scenes for poignancy and laughs. Steven’s incompetence at cruising has the ring of reality, as he mistakes a handsome trick for a devoted lover. The man turns out to be not only married but also one of his father’s business clients. (Steven, and the audience, gets a first-hand look at the potential horrors of middle-class straight life in this scene, with the once-glamorous trick now saddled with a screaming baby and nagging wife.) While the anxiety and danger associated with public tricking have frequently been aired (think Cruising), rarely have we seen the pesky details that threaten to capsize a budding tryst treated with humor. In this case, it’s an out-of-ink pen that nearly proves Steven’s undoing, as he’s sitting in a toilet stall trying to write his phone number on a piece of toilet paper for the nervous trick on the other side of the glory hole.
The nervous trick turns out to be the true object of Steven’s lust: John Dixon. Their early scenes together, with Dixon torn between lust and guilt, have an emotional authenticity that helps ground the film. Dixon’s a credible cad all too familiar in queer circles – the jock who’s desperate to maintain the fiction of bourgeois heterosexuality. He has the obligatory model-girlfriend, sports car, and impending Oxford education while secretly indulging his queer side with someone who’s expected to be available for secret sex but also to endure public snubbing and even assaults. The film gives Dixon long scenes in which to explain his pain, which becomes problematic with novice, and not especially gifted, actor Brad Gorton; his character proves elusive in scenes that would challenge greater talents. Ben Silverstone’s Steven Carter fares better; he’s consistently believable as a boy who insists on following his feelings in spite of clueless peers and parents, frequent bashings and near-bashings, and a potentially harrowing sequence of being chased through a park by the police.
The felicitously named Patrick Wilde, author of the play What’s Wrong with Angry on which the film was based, said he wrote it because “I was sick of being told by people – even gay people – that it’s easier to be gay now… But I don’t believe it’s easier than it ever was to come out.” In spite of the playwright’s words and Ben Silverstone’s winning personality, Steven’s coming out is affecting but the film is too buoyant and After School Special-ish to give the scene the kind of emotional power that would set Get Real apart.