“Kids have been calling me a faggot ever since the second grade. I never really had the opportunity to explore the female gender,” says obsessive-compulsive 20-something Todd as he embarks on a comical yet poignant heterosexual romance in the new queer indie Straight Up.
As we proceed from quirky tableaux to comic direct-to-camera rants, Todd—played by James Sweeney, who also wrote and directed the film—ponders his gay existence and expresses his neuroses in the classic millennial style: in which every life issue is an opportunity for a dry, sarcastic, throwaway joke. In Sweeney’s hands, his story is completely cinematic (full of exquisitely crafted shots and editing) and utterly theatrical (packed with exchanges of beautiful dialogue done in bravura long-take sequences).
Todd’s fastidiousness, anxiety, and vividly expressed aversion to bodily functions serve as the primary motivations for his delusional and quixotic journey. “I wish I didn’t have any holes,” he frets at one point. “If I didn’t have to worry about things going in and out of my holes, life would be so much easier.” His other rationale for pursuing women? “I think it would statistically improve my love life.”
This premise, of our hero trying to prove he isn’t gay, straddles an unsettling line between comedy and something pretty close to tragedy over the course of the film. Like, isn’t this the kind of thing that happened before gay liberation? You know, a gay man marries a straight woman and ruins both their lives because of an inability to face the truth?
Remarkably, though, Sweeney’s feature debut succeeds in walking that line. Although its super-smart, fast-paced banter inclines one towards a cynical resistance of its charms (watching it, you sometimes feel like you’re in a 90-minute TikTok), you can’t deny its excellent performances, wry observations, and bold style (it’s shot in vintage 4:3 aspect ratio, so it’s more square-screen than wide-screen). The result is like a mash-up of Stranger Than Paradise, My Dinner With Andre, and a David Sedaris essay.
Throughout the film, Todd’s friends Meg (Dana Drori) and Ryder (James Scully) continue to point out the obvious fact that he’s gay. But Todd is determined to follow his path, while his therapist (deftly played by Tracie Thoms) serves as witness and cheerleader along the way. Amazingly, Todd crosses paths with the attractive, smart-ass aspiring actress Rory (Katie Findlay), whose fast-talking, overly intellectual remarks function as her own special form of emotional distancing.
“Millennials overshare because we’re the most godless generation,” Rory quips in one of the movie’s many epically entertaining philosophical moments. “That’s why we confess everything on social media.”
Todd and Rory meet-cute at the library and after a geeky chat head to Todd’s current house-sitting Los Angeles gig, where we discover that, other than their respective sexualities, they actually do seem like a perfect match. The unlikely tale flies forward from there. The hilarious duo are soon holding hands and house-sitting together in Monterey… until, one night, a simple kiss prompts the question: “Will you be my girlfriend?”
Then come the adventures in coupledom: Todd brings Rory to meet Meg and her new boyfriend, Zane (Joshua Diaz); Todd brings Rory to meet his parents (Randall Park and Betsy Brandt); Todd and Rory attend Ryder’s costume birthday party. In one of Straight Up’s many meta-cinematic references, they dress as Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Newman’s character in the original play is actually a repressed homosexual, a plot point that was edited out for the big screen). So the gay man pretending to be straight is masquerading as a gay character who pretends to be straight—and the gay man is, ironically, unaware of this fact.
Their sexless relationship carries on with back rubs, Bananagrams, and arguments over the proper definition of the word ironic. Todd’s severe OCD includes his repulsion of bodily fluids, while Rory’s disinterest in sex is less clearly defined, but for a while the arrangement actually works for both of them. Until it doesn’t. When the manic soul mates attend Meg’s holiday party (in hideous matching red-and-green Christmas sweaters) they get caught up in a fierce game of Truth or Dare with Meg, Zane, Ryder, and Todd’s one-time gay hookup (the hilarious Brendan Scannell as the guy Meg calls “Blow-job Jerry” in reference to Todd’s previous interaction with him).
This spells the beginning of the end, with it becoming crystal-clear that Todd really is gay and Rory realizing she wants to be with someone who wants to have sex with her. She runs off to Seattle, and yet, Todd still can’t quite let go.
As brilliant as Straight Up is, the plot falters a bit here. It almost seems that Sweeney wants to make an argument for asexuality, but his protagonist’s choices signal fear rather than represent conscious volition. It’s great that Todd loves Rory, but it becomes increasingly difficult to sympathize with his plight when we really just want him to confront that fear and live the gay life he is clearly meant to live if he would just get over himself. We can’t help but lose our patience with him.
Still, despite its unsatisfying conclusion—an intentionally unclear scene that suggests that either Todd finally has a boyfriend or that Rory does—Straight Up should be commended for its ambition. It is rare to see an American LGBTQ film as smart and thoughtful as this one.
Straight Up opens February 28 at the IFC Theater in New York City and March 6 in Los Angeles.