GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
TLA Releasing, 2003
Starring: Wes Ramsey, Steve Sandvoss, Rebekah Jordan, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Erik Palladino, Mary Kay Place and Jacqueline Bisset
Unrated, 107 minutes
It starts out as a bet. Can Christian, a pretty LA party boy, make it with the young Mormon missionary who just moved into his apartment complex?
That's the set-up for the popular festival favorite, Latter Days, now available on video. Expecting a fun piece of fluff, Latter Days surprised me on many levels. Yes our boys meet cute, (well, as cute as a party boy and a Mormon can meet), yes almost every romantic comedy plot contrivance makes an appearance... why is it then that this usually-cynical reviewer almost needed three hankies?
Seriously though, Latter Days could have been a lame one-joke comedy, instead it is a very complex and moving tale of worlds in collision. Wes Ramsey plays Christian, a young waiter with a revolving door into his bedroom. Steve Sandvoss is Aaron, who, along with three fellow "Elders," is spending two years in LA as a Mormon missionary to proselytize their faith. "'Gay and right don't belong in the same sentence," says one of Aaron's fellow Elders when asked how the Church of Latter Day Saints feels about gay rights. Christian first views Aaron as a challenge - he can usually bed anyone (as memorably illustrated in the hilarious opening scene) and his co-workers bet that he's met his match with this one. Aaron, of course, turns out to be secretly gay, (if he wasn't, would we have a movie?), and he is struggling to suppress his true nature.
He is attracted to Christian, but he is also turned off by what he sees as his "shallow lifestyle." Aaron's rejection is an epiphany to Christian, and for the first time he questions his wild life. In an attempt to prove that he isn't superficial, he becomes an AIDS volunteer but Aaron isn't fooled. Eventually, this being a romance movie after all, our boys find themselves in each other's arms. And outside forces - in this case, Aaron's church - conspire to keep them apart.
Writer/director C. Jay Cox (he penned Sweet Home Alabama) has fashioned a love story with autobiographical roots. In an interview on the DVD, he explains how he was once both men in the movie - a Mormon missionary and, later, a club kid. The genesis of his script grew from a desire to place the two facets of his past together and see what happens. His life experiences amplify the script's honesty.
Battle lines are drawn and it is fairly obvious whose side the filmmakers are on. The Mormons are rightly depicted as being inflexible in their dogma. Aaron will eventually be given a choice; excommunication or living his life truthfully. One man's faith is another's poison, and the rigidity of his shamed parents is truly chilling. It is clear that such narrowmindness can be destructive - just look at our current President.
[Reviewer's note 2009: Speaking of destructive narrowmindedness, the Mormons practically bankrolled the notorious Proposition 8 that banned gay marriage in California in 2008. Need I say more?]
To the film's credit, Latter Days refuses to present anything as black and white. How do we explain the almost-homoerotic fratboy horseplay between Aaron's fellow Elders? Or the Elder who tells Aaron that he just wants to get this over with so he can get married and have sex? Of course there are also jokes at the Mormons' expense and many of them are very funny. Christian asks Aaron why he is called "Elmer," and his blatant attempts at seduction, coupled with Aaron's discomfort, makes for some sublime comedy.
But then the film gets serious. Aaron, who comes across in the early scenes as a dork, emerges as almost a martyr. While it is a foregone conclusion that Christian will bed the conflicted Mormon, it is worth noting that Aaron also impacts Christian's life is ways he would have never thought possible before their meeting. There is genuine chemistry between the two, and their big sex scene is one of the most tender I have seen. Their post-coital confessions are up there with the monologues in that fine two-man drama, Together/Alone.
The very appealing cast makes Latter Days enjoyable. This is probably one of the best gay "date movies" you will ever see. The leads are terrific and adorable, and they are surrounded by a supporting cast that includes 3rd Rock From The Sun's Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a Mormon homophobe, Mary Kay Place as Aaron's devastated mother, and Erik Palladino as an AIDS victim with whom Christian bonds. Jacqueline Bisset adds a touch of class as the matriarch of the restaurant where Christian and his friends work as waiters.
One quibble, and it's a big one: the background music and incidental pop songs. Come on guys, even "Sounds of Silence" got annoying after the fifth repetition in The Graduate. Now it's true that I'm not a showtune/diva kind of gay guy - I love The Who and Bruce Springsteen - but can anyone make a movie anymore without annoying songs always breaking the mood? This is a plea to all filmmakers: forget the soundtrack album and just make a movie, okay?
In closing, it is worth noting that the Mormon hierarchy must have felt threatened by the truths exposed in Latter Days because Salt Lake City's major cineplex chain refused to screen it. The theaters' president will not admit that Mormon pressure had anything to do with his decision, instead he claims that the movie failed to meet their standards of "artistic quality and integrity." Oh, and movies like Bad Boys II and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake do? It's nice to know that hypocrisy is still alive and well in America.
On Joseph Gordon-Levitt