The least one could ask of a wish-fulfillment fantasy film is a little buoyancy and breeziness. Yet for all its good-natured intentions, Tom Gustafson‘s “Were the World Mine,” in which a put-upon small-town gay teen converts his hopelessly straight town (including his corn-fed jock crush) to the pink team with the help of a magical, squirting purple pansy, is a mostly leaden affair, suffering as it does from a lack of realization and clarity. A film can’t simply be “light as a feather” or contagiously sweet by virtue of its conception, but rather by the fine, clean lines of its craft. And this is no simple matter of budget: oodles of ingenuity have historically been wrung from more impoverished film productions than this one.
Using “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as a launching pad (a text one might say at this point, especially in queer-tinged cinema and theater, has been “done to death”), Tom Gustafson fashions a flimsy fable about a high schooler, Timothy (Tanner Cohen), recently out to his classmates and his single mother (Judy McLane), who is inspired by his ethereal, elfin English teacher (Wendy Robie, best remembered in certain circles as the terrifying Nancy Reagan-with-a-butcher-knife “Mother” in Wes Craven‘s “The People Under the Stairs“) to take part in the school’s staging of Shakespeare’s classic romantic comedy of transformation. Of course the magic spills over into the “real world,” but Gustafson so poorly creates visual or emotional distinctions between reality and fantasy (save a handful of borderline trashy, badly choreographed dream sequences) that the whole thing gets bogged down in a repetitive drabness.
The film’s general lack of spatial sense, played out in a series of ill-framed and patched together shots, might be the result of a filmmaker who uses “Moulin Rouge” and “Dancer in the Dark” as reference points for the contemporary musical rather than, say, “Gigi” or “On the Town” (rarely does Gustafson let a scene play out; he’s always busy jumping to the next one). Whatever one thinks of them, the controlled chaos of those recent forays into deconstructed musical filmmaking was carefully, calculatedly shambolic; these were works from filmmakers who had already played by the rulebook before throwing it out the window.
A pseudo-musical, “Were the World Mine” uses the contemporary convention of song as release from a stunted reality. So rather than fully integrated, its handful of tunes (lyrics adapted from Shakespeare) are jarring escapes, and for Gustafson excuses to more fully splash his otherwise lifeless canvas with garish colors and glittering set design. If only he had been less tentative. For it’s these moments, with their Pierre et Gilles-esque images of shirtless, nubile young men in gaudily classical tableaux and their unexpectedly lovely chords and harmonies from composer Jessica Fogle, that resonate the most.
“Were the World Mine” needs to be an explosion–of angst, of youthful rebellion, of pubescent sexual desire; instead it’s mostly a shrug. Despite a game cast (Cohen is likable and button-cute, and Nathaniel David Becker makes for a goofy, attainably average lust object), its central idea never catches fire. The latent sexual longing needs to burst forth with the music; it need not be explicit, but it should be a spectacle, something closer in spirit to Randy Weiner‘s “Midsummer” theater adaptation-cum-dance party “The Donkey Show.” Instead it all just ends with an annoying post-play emo shindig fronted by Robin Williams‘s daughter. All the world may be a stage, but if this is what’s going to be on it, take me back to the days of cornets and lutes.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]