The Trip

TLA Releasing,

Miles Swain

Larry Sullivan, Steve Braun, Sirena Irwin, Alexis Arquette, Ray Baker, Julie Brown, Jill St. John

Rated R, 94 minutes

Politics and Strange Bedfellows
by Michael D. Klemm
Reprinted from Outcome, January, 2004

The Trip is an interesting, if uneven, attempt to create a gay Dr. Zhivago or The Way We Were by setting the love affair of two men against a historical and political backdrop; in this case the gay civil rights struggles of the 1970s and 1980s.

Larry Sullivan plays Alan Oakley, a young Republican journalist. The tale opens in 1973 when Larry is writing a very negative book about homosexuality. It soon becomes apparent that he is deeply in the closet and that the book is a result of his own internalized homophobia and denial. The Trip chronicles his journey towards self-acceptance.

Enter Tommy Ballenger, played by a Brad Pitt lookalike named Steve Braun. Tommy, 19 and openly gay, is a Texas native who has moved to California to form OUT LOUD, a gay civil rights group. A chance meeting brings these opposites together. Tommy knows a closet case when he sees one, and eventually he knocks down Alan's barriers and the two fall in love.

There is one problem: Alan's book, The Straight Truth. Alan has now dis-owned the book but he's in luck; his publisher doesn't think the time is right to release it. For now, at least, he's off the hook. Fast forward to 1977 and Anita Bryant is pushing her homophobic "Save Our Children" campaign across the nation. Alan's book is now a hot property and there's nothing he can do except demand that it be published anonymously. Tommy is in full activist mode, and views Bryant and the bestselling diatribe The Straight Truth as the two biggest obstacles towards gay rights. Alan is terrified that Tommy will discover that he wrote it, even though it was before they met. Matters aren't helped when a jealous older man leaks the anonymous author's identity to the press.

The Trip is an ambitious film that takes the viewer from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan and AIDS. Transitions between the years are bridged with period music and some terrific archival footage of early Pride marches, scenes with Harvey Milk, and - most welcome of all - that priceless moment when a gay activist shoved a pie in Anita Bryant's face. It is a large canvas to fill but unfortunately writer/director Miles Swain isn't Tony Kushner and his script, though admittedly a diamond in the rough, is in need of polishing.

Swain's intentions are admirable but some of The Trip's silly over-the-top humor is more suited to an episode of That 70s Show. The Trip has all the ingredients to be a queer cinema classic and it comes closer than most current genre films in acheiving that goal. There are third act problems which is ironic because we learn, through the DVD's extras, that Swain wrote that part first (based on an urban legend) and then added Alan and Tommy's backstory. I could have lived without watching our boys on the run from the Mexican police in the last third - it was as if Thelma and Louise had suddenly been grafted onto what had been, up to that point, a pretty decent political comedy. These "on the lam" scenarios are a new trend in a lot of gay films and one that I wish would stop.

Even so, I enjoyed most of the film, but with a few reservations. Too many supporting characters are cartoons; from Alexis Arquette as an overly flamboyant gay friend to Alan's annoying New Age ex-girlfriend. Jill St. John is better as Alan's understanding, but eccentric, mother but even she becomes irritating when, at a dramatic climax, she starts stealing the silverware at a rich man's dinner party.

On the plus side, the two leads are terrific. They are sweet together and their relationship is quite heartfelt. You want them to get together and later you hope they resolve their differences. Their awkward courtship is nicely detailed, even if it's finally consummated a bit too abruptly. Still, many episodes shine, such as the early scene when they begin to bond while getting stoned, or the one when Alan's parents drop in for an unexpected visit and Tommy has left a porn magazine on the coffee table. Dramatic tension is added by a closted older lawyer who functions like Shakepeare's Iago. He wants Alan for himself and slinks behind the scenes to destroy his marriage to Tommy.

Despite my quibbles, The Trip is one of the best new queer films I have seen in some time. It is honest, it is fun, it is entertaining, it is even educational. I look forward to future films from this director.


Alexis Arquette also appears in: