Despite its promising title, Jesse Rosen's tiny L.A.-set "The Art of Being Straight" isn't really about contemporary codes of masculinity or the rattling task of "passing" as heterosexual. Rather it's a flimsy pseudo-autobiographical character piece from a first-time filmmaker playing an approximation of himself so dewy-eyed cute and effortlessly naive that many audiences will be hard-pressed to find enormous fault. After all, the "likability" factor goes a long way in negligible indie fare, and certainly in small-budget gay-themed niche moviemaking, at times even held up as an ideal equal to such matters as coherent editing and photography and certainly to performance. Tact and charm are attributes, but a rewarding movie experience they don't necessarily make.
All this might portend a certain harshness in my response to the affable "Art of Being Straight," but rather I'm just trying to impress that good-natured DV debuts deserve their critical fair shakes as much as any larger-scale indie or even studio product (something that those who leave irate comments on reviews don't quite understand). And inoffensive as it is, Rosen's personal soul-searcher is certainly rickety, featuring all the signs of being unpurposefully unpolished (clunky editing within conversations, overreliance on stultifying close-ups, anonymous spaces stripped of personality standing in for viable art direction, sloppy scene transitions that often seem to go on a beat too long) and many hallmarks of the indie playbook, including a heavy dose of wimp-rock on the soundtrack--here courtesy of The Musical Theatre--and even blink-and-miss cameos from those purveyors of dull non-conversation-making, Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig, hanging out at a party.
Yet those mumblecoreans' appearance does throw Rosen's film into sharp relief: unlike recent straight-centric American indie fare such as Aaron Katz's Quiet City and Swanberg's Nights and Weekends, at least this filmmaker's brand of narcissism makes room for plausible, relatable dialogue, convincing character arcs, and a negotiation of the self as it functions within different social strata (rather than say, drifting through random, homogenous postcollegiate stupor). Rosen is persuasive if undynamic as Jon, a former dorm-room lothario recently transplanted to Los Angeles to seek work and love; after an unwanted seduction from his cartoonishly aggressive boss, Paul (Johnny Ray Rodriguez), Jon begins questioning his previously staunchly hetero (he claims) identity. Meanwhile, the film follows his university pal Maddy (played by the more commanding Rachel Castillo) on her own parallel, yet slightly inverted, path of sexual awakening: a tightly wound ball of insecure faux confidence, Maddy initially seems a happily adjusted lesbian -- that is, until she finds herself drawn towards her studly-geeky history-teacher neighbor.
One of the film's neat tricks, and also one of its great calamities, is that Rosen and Castillo, who obviously have an innate chemistry, share only a small handful of scenes (Rosen's hesitant sorta-coming-out scene to Castillo is undoubtedly the film's highlight, shot and performed with an ease the rest of the film desperately craves). This leaves them each a bit unmoored and interacting with a cast made up of many greatly unskilled performers -- all Rosen's scenes with his straight-arrow roommate Jared Grey fall flat, as do those with Rodriguez, whose odd approximation of an alpha boss makes the character an unnecessarily hateful predator. Castillo's magnetism grows ever clearer in light of the other actors -- considering that as written Maddy registers as little more than a hostile hipster harridan (she's often needlessly sarcastic, even to strangers, even when smoking pot and . . . reading Sartre?!), it's near miraculous that the actress is able to so shine through.
Meanwhile, Jon must contend with his roommate's cartoonishly homophobic arsenal of screechy guy-guy friends (who use words like "donkey douche" almost as frequently as "fag") while dealing with his own internal doubts and rages. If Rosen is as unimaginative in representing Jon's demons as to at one point stoop to a dingy, out-of-focus vomiting scene -- with him dramatically clutching a toilet, natch -- there is some respite in his surprising, refreshingly ambiguous non-ending. Even if a bit forced (the conventionality of all that transpired may not naturally lead to such a radical anticlimax), the conclusion helps brings some of the film's themes to the fore, and also shows the difficulty that comes with true self-definition.
[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]