Bright Lights Film Journal

All Roads Lead to Love: Tanya Wexler’s Finding North

A good-natured low-budget road movie with a queer twist

With occasional exceptions like Philadelphia, the “AIDS movie” has been mostly a ghetto genre, so much so that many of these films aren’t even seen outside the gay film festival circuit. There’s always video, of course; low-budget films that would otherwise be forgotten, likeGreen Plaid Shirt, have a limited afterlife there. But others don’t even make it to that level. Complicating the picture is a persistent feeling that as complacency about AIDS grows, audiences lose interest, and the impetus for even making films on this subject decreases.

So it’s reassuring to see a worthwhile indie like Finding North, shot in 1997, finally getting a release. This comedy-drama, a first-time effort by director Tanya Wexler, isn’t a great film by any stretch. There are plenty of plot contrivances, and for some viewers the whole premise will seem forced and incredible. The screenplay is workmanlike but not especially memorable. But Wexler obviously believes in the material and the characters, and that sense of conviction comes across. Her direction of the two stars gives life to characters that in less skillful hands would be simple caricatures, too familiar and too shallow to be credible. Best of all, she’s surprisingly successful in the one area in which such films usually fall down – dangerously skirting the sentimental without sliding into bathos.

The opening scene is a familiar sight with an unfamiliar twist – a Manhattan bridge choked with commuters, all of whom have stopped to watch a tall naked man poised to jump. One of the spectators is wisecracking, big-haired Rhonda Portelli (Wendy Makkena), a 30-year-old bank teller tormented by her mother because she’s not married. She’s perky but depressed, with a love life so lousy she has to hire the sleazy male stripper who performs at the office birthday party she throws for herself.

The tall naked man is Travis Furlong (John Benjamin Hickey), an uptight gay yuppie so distressed about his lover Bobby’s death that he plans to kill himself. First, though, he has to listen to a series of deathbed tapes that Bobby left that ask him to take a stroll down memory lane, specifically, Texas, where Bobby grew up. Through an elaborate series of circumstances, Rhonda hooks up with Travis and they make the trip together.

At first and even second glance, they’re a wretched mismatch in the Will and Gracemode. Travis is a bitter, self-pitying AIDS widower ready to end his life; Rhonda is a wacky romantic desperate to escape living at home, get a romance going, and start living. What binds them is deep mutual need that, happily, doesn’t require a hetero conversion on his part.

The story is structured around Bobby’s tapes, which force Travis forced to confront various ghosts – from a crusty old aunt to the ice cream floats of his youth – from Bobby’s past for reasons that aren’t clear until the end. Each time one tape ends and a part of the puzzle is complete, Travis is given instructions on where to find a new one, deepening the mystery and forcing him to contemplate the direction of his own life. This conceit gives a sweetly discursive, almost random air to Travis and Rhonda’s journey, with mini-melodramas arising suddenly and vanishing just as fast. Rhonda’s most memorable encounter is with a charming, hunky motel worker, who, ready for sex but asked simply to hold her, says simply “I’d love that.” One of Travis’s “duties” is to give away money to strangers. One of the recipients is a woman who now lives in Bobby’s old house. The film works considerable pathos into this brief meeting between troubled Travis and a wistful housewife who can only talk to him through the screen door. Powerful too is the scene between Travis and Bobby’s Aunt Bonnie (Molly McClure), a perfect example of the film’s ability to explore strong emotions without becoming maudlin.

There’s solid chemistry between Travis and Rhonda that makes some of the more improbable aspects of the film easier to take. Actor John Benjamin Hickey is a veteran of the genre, having starred in Love! Valor! Compassion! Here he nicely fleshes out a character that should by all rights have come off as irritating and cloying. Wendy Makkena, who played the skinny nun in Sister Act, makes the most of the ultimately endearing Rhonda. Eagle-eyed viewers will notice that Angela Pietropinto, Rhonda’s comically controlling mother, played a similar role in Welcome to the Dollhouse.