Open relationships, throuples, polyamory — 21st century sexual configurations have not always received the most nuanced cinematic renderings. Few filmmakers have truly interrogated what polyamory looks like in real life without resorting to cheap thrills and even cheaper jokes. Which is what makes “Lavender,” an elegantly crafted short film starring “Ugly Betty” star Michael Urie, such a revelation. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival where it was quickly nabbed by Fox Searchlight’s brand new short film distribution arm and became a Vimeo Staff Pick premiere as of today.
“Lavender” is the second narrative short from gay filmmaker Matthew Puccini, who wrote and directed the short. His first film, “The Mess He Made,” starred Max Jenkins (“High Maintenance”) as a man waiting for the results of an HIV test. “Lavender” is just as plaintive in tone, though its themes are slightly lighter. The film centers around a young man (Michael Hsu Rosen) in a relationship with a slightly older couple (Michael Urie and Ken Barnett). The film opens with the trio sitting at the piano and singing an Irving Berlin tune, and eventually pivots to a hot and heavy group sex scene. Puccini was inspired by a similar experience he had, though his was a less serious entanglement than the one portrayed in the film.
“I had spent some time with another gay couple in 2017, and at that point really had never been in a serious relationship before. Over the duration of the time I was spending with them, I found myself very struck by the lifestyle that they had and the relationship that they had, and over the course of the time realized those were things I really wanted,” Puccini told IndieWire. “It made me want to put something onscreen that was more tender and intimate than what I had seen prior. In a lot of ways I feel like what I’m making is a reaction to wanting to put something onscreen that I either haven’t seen before or don’t think I have seen portrayed as accurately or as sensitively as I would have hoped.”
He was shocked and thrilled when Searchlight reached out after his Sundance premiere. “[Fox Searchlight] has such a wonderful reputation for nurturing filmmakers and taking risks on less commercial projects,” he said. “Their mission around this has been so pure. They really seem to just want to champion filmmakers who are in that transitional state between shorts and feature films, and using their platform to amplify those voices.”
The acquisition doesn’t come with any formal mentorship program or development deal, but it certainly puts Puccini on Searchlight’s radar. “It does feel like there’s an open door to be sharing work with them, and they’ve been very clear that they would love to read things I write down the line.”
Michael Urie is best known to TV viewers from ABC’s “Ugly Betty,” but he has wracked up a string of critically acclaimed theater credits recently. He recently starred as Arnold Beckoff in the Tony-winning Broadway revival of Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song.” It was that production that introduced Urie to Hsu Rosen, who approached him about doing “Lavender.”
“It’s such a coup that we have the cast that we have in the film, I think we’re all so grateful that those three actors said yes. … [We] really prioritized wanting the three leads to be gay actors, and wanting to pull from the New York theater community,” said Puccini. “The journey of this film at every stage has been like the most surreal chapter of my life by far, because it is a sexy and subversive film and it’s also very scrappy and small. We made it for very little money and were never expecting to have it be embraced in the way that it was been.”
Watch Matthew Puccini’s “Lavender” below.