This sweet film about queer fratboys in love defies the odds, too.
Summer is when the studios unleash their biggest potential moneymakers, which this year have also turned out to be some of cinema’s more forgettable turkeys. Despite the title, and the hype machine, and the image of 50-year-old “boys” playing spaceman outside the theaters, the latest Star Wars entry is more “phantom movie” than “phantom menace.” Austin Powers is gruelingly unfunny, unable to create, much less sustain, a laugh. The Wild Wild West is a cynical showcase for mindless special effects and smarmy star power – you can practically see the focus groups, marketers, and accountants who helped fabricate this one. (To be fair, there’s also South Park, a fabulously funny, enchantingly vulgar musical satire, but it’s definitely the exception.)
The fact that these bore-fests are dominating both the big screen and the small one (in the form of endless “news” stories and behind-the-scenes featurettes) is intrinsically irritating but also deadly for “small” movies that lack the resources to compete. This makes a quietly powerful first feature like John Keitel’s Defying Gravity – which lacks stars, budget, or, thank goodness, special effects – all the more intriguing.
Like many a recent queer-themed film, this one is about the coming-out process. Unlike Get Real, which was too cheerful to delineate the terrors of the closet, Defying Gravity shows the brutal consequences surrounding exposure for two kinds of queers: the one who gets brutally bashed when he steps out of the closet, and the one who clings desperately to his secret and yields some of his humanity in the process.
At the center of the drama is John “Griff” Griffith, a hunky, emotionally retarded college boy who wants to have his gay cake and eat it too. The “cake” in this case is his pal and secret midnight fuck buddy Pete Bradley (Don Handfield). Griff is a typical closet case who spends his evenings fucking Pete’s brains out but races back to the dorm like Cinderella so his frat brothers won’t know he was gone. Pete, who’s left the dorm and is trying to pursue a more authentic life, demands a commitment from Griff. When he suggests a date, stiff Griff bristles: “A date?” When Pete forces a meeting, he doesn’t tell Griff it’s at the local gay bar. When Griff arrives, he’s nervous and disgusted: “I don’t get any of this,” he says, trying to distance himself from images of bartenders hugging and a queen passing out flyers, and the prospect of losing something he may never be able to regain.
The film makes it painfully clear in the frat house scenes what it is Griff is afraid of losing. This is the acceptance and camaraderie bestowed on compliant heteros, or homos willing to play-act perhaps for the rest of their lives. The frat house is a hotbed of upper-crust white boy fun, the relaxed, privileged interplay of a tribal group that will presumably be running their community in another ten years.
But this pleasure of being part of the tribe that rules is only part of the picture. There’s another, more troubling element that violently defends the group against any perceived threats, but especially from “the fags” the boys see protesting on TV or going with apparent impunity to the local gay bar. When Griff and Pete have a fight at the bar, Griff storms away in disgust, leaving Pete walking down a very dark alley. A car follows Pete, and the next day he’s in the hospital in critical condition after being gaybashed.
The trajectory of the film follows Griff’s halting attempts to grow up and inhabit his own skin. Actor Daniel Chilson brings a rough, not always skilled, but ultimately quite affecting quality to Griff. He’s almost indecently handsome and sexy in the role, but also convincingly uptight and rigid, riddled with the kind of body armor that covers, and threatens to smother, a person who tries to live at odds with his nature. The film provides him with potential diversions in the form of an attentive sorority girl who lusts for him, a female classmate who’s also in the closet, and best of all a simpatico best friend, Todd (Niklaus Lange), who’s devoted to him in spite of Griff’s increasingly strange, furtive behavior.
The tone of Defying Gravity is bittersweet and low-key, with the sensational elements – especially the gaybashing, which for once isn’t even shown – subordinated to the behavioral nuances of the relationships among the three principals: Pete, Todd, and Griff. If there’s a problem with the film, it’s an occasional drift into soap opera, particularly in what Andy Warhol identified as “consternation fadeouts” – those strange movie moments where a scene ends with one character staring portentously at another. But this is more than balanced by some incandescent moments of connection. A brief but powerful flashback shows the precise moment when adolescent horseplay becomes an unbreakable bond, beautifully visualized when Griff and Pete suddenly stand up naked together against a rain-soaked window, looking at themselves in the mirror not as individuals but – and this is palpable in the scene – as a pair. Most affecting is a small moment when a friend of Pete’s tells Griff, “He really cares about you . . . a lot.” Griff’s luminous expression – a heartbreaking mix of wonder, pleasure, and embarrassment – has a power and immediacy that lifts the film from the formulaic to a realm of pure feeling.