Del Shores has built a bit of a following, having created Sordid Lives and having been a writer-producer on Queer As Folk.
He has also done a few one-man shows establishing himself. This movie,
directed by Shores, is a filming of the stage play of the same name,
which he wrote a decade or so ago. It was filmed in front of a live
audience. Unlike Spike Lee's Passing Strange, there were never
any creative camera moves on stage. The cameras are strategically placed
off-stage or behind-the-scenes in static positions, which doesn't make
the camerawork very dynamic, but some interesting angles are achieved
and provide points-of-view that don't seem well-attained even in the
close and intimate, Macha Theatre setting.
The stage is quite small. Yet, it holds three locations. The center stage is the church location. The left stage is the gay bar and nightclub. The right stage is the bedroom. The latter two are basic setups but the center stage has pews taking up the middle and most of the space, so when people sit in them, the actors' backs are to the audience. One moment when two actors peer at each other, thanks to the cameras' presence, we're able to see the look in the actors' eyes, which if the play weren't being filmed, I don't get how the audience seeing only the actors' backs would have gotten the impact of that moment.
Emerson Collins stars as Mark Lee Fuller, a member of the Calvary Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. Mark narrates his life growing up as a choir boy, a teenager studying the Bible, realizing his homosexuality, becoming an adult, a columnist and deciding on whether or not he'll leave the church. Even though it's not a stage play, I liken some of these story elements to the recent film The Falls (2012) and its sequel The Falls: Testament of Love (2013). There are similar echoes, as both tackle the conflict of homosexuality and religion.
Shores' play weaves in the stories of three other young characters and two other adult characters. Aside from the two adult characters, the four young characters proceed to tell their stories as monologues. In fact, in Act 2, each actor sits in the pews and one-by-one each stands and delivers a monologue about the first time their characters realized they were gay. The four actors rarely talk to each other. As the monologues persist, the movie feels preachy and like a series of sermons, ironic given the subject matter.
The four boys sing together at the opening, but don't have any dialogue between all four at any other point. They never really talk to each other. They only talk about each other or mainly themselves. There is brief interaction, but that interaction is focused on the revelation that Mark has fallen in love and is having an affair with TJ, played by Luke Stratte-McClure, the choir boy who is probably the most masculine and who resists and denies his homosexuality the most. His monologue in Act 1 where he bashes a gay pride parade is very damning.
All four boys deliver their monologues with as much heart and humor as one could want, including Benny, played by Willam Belli, as the choir boy-turned-drag queen, and Andrew, played by Matthew Scott Montgomery, the N'Sync-loving, male stripper-straddling, adorable, little leather boy who is probably the most conflicted of all the southern Baptists on display. While all four boys deliver by themselves directly addressing the audience, it truly is better when the characters dialogue with one another, particularly Mark and TJ. The scenes between Mark and TJ are the moments that sing with the most emotion and drama, as to be the most compelling.
The two adults are Odette, played by Dale Dickey, and Peanut, played by Leslie Jordan. For the most part, these two are kept separate from the four young boys. It's purposeful, but the two become like Statler and Waldorf, the hecklers in The Muppets Show. They're clearly the comic relief with great one-liners and great drunken mannerisms. Shores gives them some pathos at the end that Dickey plays well, but Jordan steals the show, as Jordan in performance and appearance is like a modern-day Truman Capote.
His Peanut character represents the extreme of where any of the four boys could end up, most likely Andrew. Odette represents the extreme of the relatives of the four boys. The play introduces the mothers of several of the boys who always suspect their sons are "sissies" but don't want to accept it. Those scenes seem repetitive and superfluous, but the mothers in those scenes feel like they could arc toward becoming Odette.
It's great to see Belli doing not only a Dolly Parton impersonation but also Naomi Judd and Tina Turner. He doesn't do lip-sync. His actual voice belts out powerful songs like "Don't Look Back," which comments brilliantly on Mark and TJ's heartbreak. It's not so great to think about where the play ends though.
Of course, with all the contradicting Bible verses that are debated, the movie concludes on the note of "God is Love," but it's obvious that Shores is still a devout, religious person, as his very final moment bends away from where The Falls: Testament of Love concludes in which its main character loses his faith. Shore goes a step further with providing proof of God. It's essentially the same as Tony Kushner's Angels in America but only not as fantastical or hallucinatory.
Shores plays it rather straight-forward, and he says definitively, yes, there is a God by way of a character talking to an angel. As a message to leave young gay men and women who might be growing up and facing these similar religious dilemmas, it's a good one, but it's rather on-the-nose and hits over the head what is plain from the beginning.
Three Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains sexual situations and male nudity.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 18 mins.
Opened in Palm Springs on February 21 at Camelot Theatres.
Opens in Los Angeles on March 7 at The Downtown Independent.
Opens in Philadelphia on March 13 at the PhilaMOCA for one night only.
Opens in Detroit on March 21 at Cinema Detroit.
Opens in Portland on March 28 at the Clinton Street Theater.
Opens in Greensboro, NC on March 28 at Carousel Cinemas.
Opens in New Orleans on April 4 at Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center.
Opens in Phoenix on April 12 at the Film Bar PHX for two-nights only.
Opens in Sioux Falls, SD on May 4 at Club David.