Thankfully there seems to have been a moratorium lately on movies that mine the LGTBQ+ experience for tragedy and awards. There’s also been a move towards authenticity, notably in the area of casting trans actors for trans roles, and both of those factors help and hinder photographer Luke Gilford’s feature debut, a film as rich in personality as a Diane Arbus snap but, dramatically, about as punchy as an instalment of High School Musical. In another year, this might be more of a problem than it actually is, since, perhaps more by coincidence than design, National Anthem arrives at a time when everything it celebrates is under attack, and such a low-key affirmation of personal growth and freedom might actually be what we really need right now.
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The star of the story is a young guy named Dylan (Lean on Pete’s Charlie Plummer, inhabiting a very similar role), who lives with his single mother Fiona and little brother Cassidy in the wide open spaces of New Mexico. To help his mother out with the family finances, Dylan looks for work as an unskilled laborer, lining up outside the drugstore with all the migrant workers. Which is how he comes to The House of Splendor, a ranch run by Pepe (Rene Rosado) and Sky (Eve Lindley) that acts as drop-in center for the weird and wonderful and that’s about to open his eyes — in more ways than one.
What Dylan discovers is the world of the “queer rodeo”, an otherwise typical celebration of all things Western that rejects the traditional stereotype of the macho cowboy. Dylan meets people who could be men, women, both or neither, but the most refreshing aspect of National Anthem is that gender chaos is always a given and whole-heartedly embraced. For a while, there is the mild suggestion that all of this is going over Dylan’s head, especially when a flash mob of queens converge on the drugstore, American Honey-style, and Sky gives him a makeover with glittery red eyeshadow. Does this country boy really know what’s going on here? After a day on mushrooms at the ranch, it turns out that he certainly does, during a surprisingly raunchy threesome with Pepe and Sky.
The sex brings us to the crunch, causing the plot to kick in and highlighting the fact that Gilford’s film might actually be better off without one. With Pepe getting jealous, Dylan goes for a walk with one of the ranch’s more developed characters, a Jean Harlow blonde with a neck tattoo of the word
GENDER. She paints a picture of the ranch as a haven and an idyll, describing drag as “a way for me to show up for myself.” Family has been an unspoken through-line so far, but, though this talk of the ranch as a community for the lost and lonely opens up the wound of Dylan’s absent father, the tone is more melancholy and poignant than an unequivocal exhortation to come and run away with the circus.
The motor behind all this is Dylan’s love for the charismatic Sky, played by Lindley as an attractive combo of playfulness and worldliness, and whether Pepe’s easygoing exterior might hide a violent streak of jealousy (spoiler: it doesn’t). In lieu of conflict of any kind, the love triangle stays in place until a somewhat contrived act of God persuades Dylan that he might be better off looking for a love of his own.
On the one hand the almost complete absence of friction is quite something, given the setting, in a film where apologies fly more freely than fists and Dylan’s buco-alcoholic mother doesn’t immediately self-immolate when Dylan brings the pre-teen Cassidy home in a dress. But, on the other, there’s a real texture to the layers here, notably in an eclectic and credible background cast that recalls the ensemble from John Cameron Mitchell’s unexpectedly endearing Shortbus.
National Anthem struggles severely in its attempts to weave them into the narrative — there are lots of montages, and a bit too much longform karaoke — and the sudden discovery of a gay subculture in plain sight of blue-collar America does, unfortunately, recall that time when Homer Simpson realized a Springfield steel mill was also a gay bar. But there’s a sweetness and simplicity to its philosophy of see-and-be-seen that will likely make this an easy festival crowd-pleaser.
Title: National Anthem
Festival: SXSW, Narrative Spotlight
Director: Luke Gilford
Screenwriter: David Largman Murray, Kevin Best, Luke Gilford
Cast: Charlie Plummer, Rene Rosado, Eve Lindley
Running time: 1 hr 39 min
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