Sunday, November 2, 2008

Rants on Latter Days

There have been countless surveys counting down the greatest gay films ever made (the most recent being AfterElton's) and, for some reason or another, Latter Days (C. Jay Cox, 2004) is consistently high up on the list. It's not exactly a horrible film- there are certainly worse gay films out there *cough*Big Eden*cough*- but Latter Days isn't exactly the type of film I want to represent my people (for lack of a better word). Can the gays like a film that doesn't rely on stock characters, damaging stereotypes of gay life, horrible dialogue and generic, way too obvious themes? I know they can (Brokeback is number one for God's sake) but sometimes I wished they embraced the better ones a little more.

In short, Latter Days is about a Mormon missionary, Aaron, who moves in next to gay party boy Christian (way to be obviously ironic, screenwriter!), the relationship that blossoms between the two and the conflict between Aaron's faith and his orientation. When we meet Christian, we are automatically introduced to one of the main flaws of the film: the fact that his character perpetuates every stereotype that we've not only seen in the movies for 20 years, but also what uber-right wing conservatives think every homosexual's lifestyle is. Not only is Christian vain and superficial, but he also parties it up every night, sleeps with a new guy and every night and is intent on "converting" straight boys. In fact, Christian's almost a dangerous stereotype in the context that people who might glance at this film will start to think that every gay man acts like him, when in reality, most don't. The fact that we have to spend a majority of the film watching his totally superficial, telegraphed right from the get-go transformation really pissed me off. You mean I had to spend 20 minutes listening to Christian's angsty drivel delivered through crappy poetry when sweet Aaron was getting his testicles electrocuted? The other characters that are in this film are also stereotypes of the most tiring sort who get in the way far too often: the Sassy Black Friend, the religious bigot, the HIV victim who spreads pearls of wisdom like fairy dust (and who's inclusion in the story was shameless in the highest degree) and the wise older role model (in this case, provided by the beautiful and glamorous Jacqueline Bisset, who deserves much better than this awful role- she's worked with Truffaut for Christ's sake!)

I was actually surprised to find out that writer/director Cox actually grew up a Mormon like Aaron because, for the most part, the screenplay felt like Mormon 101 and skirted some in-depth issues I would have loved to have seen covered. There's this scene toward the beginning where Christian and his Sassy Black Friend (I seriously don't remember her name) invite Aaron and Elder Ryder (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, totally adorable even when an intolerant Mormon) to give them the Mormon lecture about how great the religion is and why they should convert, etc. It's starts off innocently enough, with Christian making a small joke about how he would be considered crazy if he heard the voice of God in the way that Joseph Smith did, but then, all of a sudden, it just explodes with the Sassy Black Friend bitching about the church's stance on black people, JGL retaliating with something about gays are evil and Christian defending himself while beating the church down. If Cox had taken a second and not gone straight for the easy target, he could have something special in this scene. A civil, semi-intelligent conversation with a point about religion and homosexuality would have made this scene so much more interesting. Instead, we're left with the tired "God hates homos" and "You're a bigot" arguments that I could have surmised on my own without this movie.

If anything in the film works well, credit that to Steve Sandvoss' performance as the achingly sweet gay Mormon Aaron. While most of the actors in the cast are coasting on stereotypes, Sandvoss delivers a performance that makes me feel for the character and helps me understand his relationship with Christian- both central to a romance and both equally hard to do. I don't know how he did it, but Sandvoss made me, a sarcastic, mean-spirited Athiestic Catholic who prays to Oprah before exams, deeply empathize with this devout Mormon who wouldn't say or do a mean thing to anybody. Sandvoss is especially great with the details, whether it's his dorky, do-gooder aura he gives off when he talks with Christian in the laundry room (come on, we've all met deeply religious people who act just like that when socializing) or his scene with Jacqueline Bisset where he actually listens to her problems and doesn't simply offer some weak, low-blow, "Come join our church!" bullshit. And then there's that ending when he comes back to Los Angeles after going to the institute to "change" his sexuality- oh boy, that's an emotional suckerpunch. He wanders the streets, like a hollowed out Holocaust survivor, just trying to find his way back to Christian and nearly collapses when he can't find him at his house. It's all due to Sandvoss that these moments are actually heartbreaking and not merely a stop-over to the inevitable conclusion. For all of Latter Days problems, I actually find myself wanting to see this film again, just to watch this performance again and fall in love with Aaron all over again. Unfortunately, one great performance can't save an entire film. C-


Vance said...

I don't remember anything about this movie except Steve Sandvoss. A) he WAS hot and the dream that all gays have of a mormon coming to their door and B) he probably was way better than the rest of the movie.

Really, we rated it high? Man, we gays are such sluts for anything pretty and stupid aren't we?

Vera said...

I could list about 130 gay films that were much worse, but your review is spot on.