GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
Unrated, 104 minutes
Having spent half a century on this planet, most coming out stories lost their appeal for me long ago. A few edgy exceptions, of course, come down the pike now and again. A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed Todd Verow's latest film, Between Something & Nothing, an off-beat and often nihilistic tale, with autobiographical roots, concerning a gay art student who moonlights as a hustler. It was a little rough around the edges, but I'm still thinking about it. While googling the filmmaker, I discovered that it was a follow-up to an earlier film about the same character - 2006's Vacationland.
|Joe (Brad Hallowell) is a high school senior who resides in Bangor, Maine. He lives in the Capehouse projects with his mother and his older sister, Theresa (Hilary Mann). His opening monologue, detailing a series of gruesome murders in the area, sets a rather grim tone that will resurface near the ending. We soon learn that Joe has a habit of telling tall tales and so his reliability as a narrator is questionable. Mother spends most of her time passed out on the couch and both her children vow to get the hell out of Bangor at the first opportunity. Theresa doesn't have a plan but Joe, an art student, is applying to the Rhode Island School of Design.|
Joe is also in love with his best friend, Andrew (Gregory J. Lucas), the star of their high school's football team. Andrew is dating Mandy, the head cheerleader, but is far more interested in hanging out with his buddy. "I hate her," Joe thinks while watching them dance, "I wish she'd fall off a cliff." Our gaydar goes up when Andrew admits that he hasn't gone all the way with her yet. Joe also has a girlfriend of sorts, whom he seems to barely tolerate, named Kris. But we learn, fairly early, that he plays for the other team when we watch him cruising a lavatory at the area mall. Joe also models, and becomes a platonic live-in companion, for an old, and disabled, gay artist named Victor (Charles Ard) who lives on the second floor of the Bangor Opera House.
|Breaking the usual formula, the two girlfriends recognize the bond between Joe and Andrew and push the two guys together. ("Can we watch?" Kris asks.) This was a new twist I haven't seen before. Mandy is actually relieved because she doesn't much like him anyway but she demands, in return for her silence, that Andrew continue to date her, and boast to everyone that they are screwing, because they have a "responsibility to uphold" due to their positions in the school hierarchy. She's manipulative, but her heart is kind of in the right place. (She will later experiment, herself, with Kris.) Our lads become passionate, but secretive, lovers. But a drama needs conflict and a dark secret from Joe's past comes back to haunt him in the third act, prompting a rather extreme revenge scenario that seems to belong in a different film.|
|The script, like the one for Between Something & Nothing, is a bit on the rambling side, and would benefit from some judicious editing, but the resulting film contains numerous moments that are satisfying and pleasing on both emotional, and prurient, levels. Joe offers a few nice insights into being a gay teen when he poses nude for Victor. He explains that he's on the track team because "if you're in drama club you have to play a sport." He describes how his mother "goes through men fast, like cartons of cigarettes. And she smoked like a chimney." Joe's adult education began long before as he was molested when he was 10 years old by an older friend's warehouse boss. He deserves a stab at happiness and, even though most of us can't say that we had the same luck in high school, we cheer when he scores with his best friend. Joe and Andrew are convincing as both friends and as lovers and Verow has a talent for filming them in ways that exploit their intense attraction for one another. It is romantic without being contrived, a love story for people who hate sappy love stories.|
|The many intersecting storylines could sustain several films. Joe's sister will emulate Janet Leigh in Hitchcock's Psycho, steal a wad of cash from the store where she works and hit the road. Andrew likes to shoplift merchandise at the mall. (Sidenote: Joe's best friend in Between Something & Nothing is also a compulsive thief.) The relationship between Joe and Victor could have been fleshed out a bit more but you get enough of a sense of the life lessons that the student learns from his mentor. Their sex-less friendship is touching but it's also apparent that Joe's there so that he can acquire the funds to pursue his dreams.|
|Joe is hardly an innocent, and he knows how to manipulate things for his own ends, and that is what makes much of Vacationland so provocative. I mentioned an earlier scene where he cruises the mall's lavatory, waiting for someone to occupy the stall next to him. When another man does, Joe begins to tap his foot. What follows is a brilliant, soundless, sequence in which their feet tap out a silent and salacious symphony before inching closer together. A hand, one of the fingers bearing a wedding ring. slips under the wall between them to stroke Joe's hairy leg. This is, quite possibly, one of the most erotic scenes I have ever seen in a movie and there's not a penis in sight. Their reverie is halted when another enters the restroom and the suspense builds until the urinal flushes and he leaves. When Joe looks under the stall at the other occupant there is a look of shocked recognition on his face and, a few scenes later, we discover that the mystery man is his French teacher. Joe will use this to his advantage to both pass the course and to get a letter of recommendation for college.|
|The grim happenings of the final act is the weakest section of the film. It seems to come out of nowhere until you remember Joe's gruesome opening narration. Vacationland is an unusual movie that jettisons traditional narrative but manages to be nostalgic, and sometimes warm and fuzzy, while also chanelling a horror film at the same time. I once referred to Greg Arraki's Mysterious Skin as being "To Kill A Mockingbird on acid" and this is also a apt description of this film. It is a tale of innocence lost and adolescents finding their way and, even if their journey sometimes takes them down the wrong paths, most of the film had me under its spell.|
|Verow makes personal films without an eye for the commercial and that is refreshing to see in these cynical days. A true guerilla artist, Verow shoots on digital video and seems to trust his actors to deliver improvisational scenes that get under your skin and resonate on an almost primal level. His execution is often clumsy but I've learned to accept that as a stylistic quirk. If today's young viewers watched Godard, they'd probably wonder why such a fuss was made about him in the 60s. Long, wordless sequences are the stuff of pure cinema and Verow is quite adept at capturing mood. There is a nice painterly quality to the cinematic compositions that mimic Ingmar Bergman, especially all the double close-ups of the two guys where their faces - or sometimes just parts of their faces - fill the frame. Regrettably, his choice of background music is often intrusive, if not annoying. Many scenes would work better in silence; the foot tapping scene in the restroom proves this.|
There are flaws, but Vacationland, like his follow-up, are diamonds in the rough that outclass a lot of what I am seeing in modern queer cinema. Reportedly both films are based on personal experience and there's nothing wrong with using your life as fodder for your art. My guess is that the concluding violence is an embellishment, or perhaps based on a Bangor urban legend, and this may be fitting considering that Verow and Stephen King share the same hometown. Not for everyone, but those who like to take a walk on the wild side should find much to admire. At the very least, you can enjoy watching the camera's love affair with two very attractive and sensual lads in love. There are no complaints in that department, and Verow certainly knows how to pick the actors who play him as a young man.
More on Todd Verow: