The indie gay cinema movement in America was a necessary response not only to mainstream studio filmmaking but also to the hetero bias of other “alternative” cinema avenues; because of the outsider status of the films it was once difficult to too harshly criticize their narrative and aesthetic faults. The field was also narrow enough that there wasn’t room for directors without a vision, or at least a technique, to slip in. Whatever their limitations, New Queer Cinema films (from Tom Kalin, Bill Sherwood, Gregg Araki, and so many more) were given deserved passes for the boldness of their inquiries. The torch has been passed, and with the ever-rising cheapness and accessibility of video, the new generation of gay American filmmakers has responded by moving inward: the gay coming-of-age tale has naturally converged with the video diary format, and the result has been enervatingly solipsistic. In its own hermetic way, the growing-up-gay film has become as rote, unimaginative, and self-regarding as the mainstream teen dreck that crowds multiplexes.
Case in point: Ash Christian‘s preening “Fat Girls,” a film as crude as its title that treads such familiar ground that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish from its DV brethren. With its stunning lack of visual ingenuity in its parade of flat, barely cobbled together scenes, one might think it the work of a child. Well, that wouldn’t be far off: the directorial debut of the only 22-year-old Christian, “Fat Girls” (the title refers to Christian’s homogenized description of the state of mind of gay men) seems to be haphazardly shot from the kind of script that most aspiring filmmakers write in their late teens and then disregard when the world opens up to them a little bit more.
Rather than try and create any flavorful set pieces, new ideas, or honest characterizations, Christian hits all the expected marks in his portrait of a Broadway-aspiring, outcast gay high-schooler living in a less-than-hospitable Texas town (crazy Christian mom; unapproachable hot exchange student; sassy, obese best friend) in the hopes that its gay audience’s automatic “identification” with protagonist Rodney will outweigh our concerns over, say, details like performance, direction, cinematography, or editing.
Well, this gay man had a hard time “identifying” with a star/writer/director (Christian also casts himself in the lead role, and a majorly unappealing screen presence he is, slack-jawed and self-conscious from first frame to last) who makes mean-spirited mincemeat of everyone that isn’t him. Stereotypes include, but aren’t limited to: a goofily accented Cuban refugee student (played by “Camp“‘s Robin de Jesus, channeling Pedro from “Napoleon Dynamite“), a rouge-smeared Christian mom (a grotesque, monstrously mistreated Deborah Theaker, so terrific in Christopher Guest‘s ensembles), and, of course, an old standby, the dad who “hilariously” dies during kinky sex with, ahem, a “midget woman,” as mom describes her (hint to filmmakers: adding demeaning jokes about little people does not help your cause as a poor mistreated outcast).
Lest anyone accuse me of being too harsh on a little, zero-budgeted film that many will chalk up as merely “good-natured” (it’s not; it’s self-sufficient and opportunistic), I point you towards the cruddy, dollar-store pleasures of other recent gay-themed digital videos like “Coffee Date” and “Dorian Blues“: no one would mistake them for cinema, but they had sharply defined characters and story arcs to buoy their amateurishness.
Instead, Christian gives us extended montages of himself getting ready to go out set (“ironically”) to Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” and a long sequence of his best friend getting her ass stuck between a car’s dashboard and passenger seat (har dee har). The icing on the cake is the appearance by “Tarnation“‘s Jonathan Caouette, cinema’s patron saint of gay self-involvement, as Mr. Cox, Rodney’s benevolent “fat girl” teacher. When Caouette mentions that he came home to Texas to take care of his sick mom, it’s obvious to those that saw “Tarnation” that he’s simply playing himself all over again. Still not looking beyond himself, Caouette’s not the mentor that Christian needs at this point in his career.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor at the Criterion Collection.]