Why can’t official Hollywood produce love stories anymore? Twenty-eight-year-old director-writer-actor James Sweeney has found the answer. American social relations are so toxic right now that friends, neighbors, and coworkers have trouble relating to romance. Finding consonance in politics only goes so deep, but Sweeney’s debut film Straight Up (from Strand Releasing) goes deeper.
Sweeney’s lead character, Todd, who identifies as gay, has OCD and cannot tolerate physical intimacy (the fluids repulse him — a Jared Hess–like tic as in Gentleman Broncos) until he finds his intellectual soulmate in struggling actress Rory (Katie Findlay). It’s a gimmick, but the narrative device is charged with modern feeling and genuinely personal observation. After all, every suitor pledging troth is a struggling actor.
Thin, prickly Todd, and Rory with her luxurious mane of hair (she’s his Barbie, he’s her Ken), have modern upper-middle-class Los Angeles sussed; they live on its fringes as outsiders looking in at everyone else’s satisfaction. They’re both so clever — calling them “whip smart” would be retarded — that rapid-fire repartee almost covers up their neuroses. Straight Up’s victory is the revelation that our own smarts are not smart enough to make up for romantic love; we seek something more.
Straight Up displays the emotional and intellectual delusions that have replaced romance in the age of Grinder, Tinder, and Bumble and yet keep Todd, Rory, and their friends’ heads spinning. The film’s title recognizes the universal heterosexual model (what’s called “normativity”) that is now under attack by transgender/cisgender movements.
Sweeney approaches these issues like a standup comic; each scene suggests one dazzling monologue or duologue after another. If you’re reminded of TV’s gay sitcom Will & Grace, it’s before that show hardened into progressive agit-prop. Cinema sensitivity is apparent in the subtle details of Sweeney and Findlay’s characterizations — emotional shifts from self-deprecation to desperation. The ingenious use of split-screen techniques juxtaposes their private dilemmas into visualization of existential crisis.
Todd is a raconteur who, with his therapist (Tracy Thoms), has mastered camp irony. He’s the gay character Whit Stillman never wrote; brilliant but incorrigible. (Todd regrets that he has only “one dimple.”) Rory is a malcontent whose full sensuality comes out in a private dance while listening to too-loud music. (“Why can’t you have sex for five minutes like a normal person!” screams her irritated neighbor in the next-door apartment.) These marvelous performances take us well within the gimmick’s truth — that is, Todd and Rory’s mutual affection.
Has any Hollywood film ever dealt with the possible Platonic aftermath of sexual intercourse? Sweeney teases the insecurities of rom-com conventions: The Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid buddy-movie jokes are priceless; so is the Brokeback Mountain gag. Sweeney’s pop-culture sarcasm recalls the audacious Gregg Araki (The Living End, Nowhere) and matches Araki when Todd and Rory attend a costume party dressed like the quarreling lovers in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Never heterophobic, Sweeney assesses traditional romance and marriage with comic skepticism. His portrayal of Todd’s mixed-race, white-Asian parents (Betsy Brandt, Randall Park) is unillusioned, just like his view of Todd’s sexually freewheeling peers — the off-limits gay friend (James Scully) and the promiscuous gal pal (Dana Drori) with her tanned Brit hunk (Joshua Diaz). You know Sweeney has truly flipped the tables on p.c. Hollywood sex comedy when Rory and Todd’s mothers discuss “Instead of abortion clinics we’d have pregnancy clinics. Is that pro-choice?” (Straight Up also boasts a politically conservative parent, without condescension or condemnation.)
In a previous era, Straight Up would be called a “fag hag” comedy, but Todd and Rory’s rapport shows a need for companionship that surpasses the unimaginative limits of conventional human relations. In an era when media celebrate division (pretending that Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story was not actually a celebration of divorce), Straight Up considers our need for “coming together” that is always pandered to by insincere politicians. I haven’t seen a romantic comedy this deliriously funny since Annie Hall, or a gay story so hilarious since Patrik-Ian Polk’s The Skinny. These comparisons should not spoil Sweeney’s unconventional wit and poignant optimism.