Saturday, 18 June 2016

Teen Queens


Is it not a precious commodity to have a gay best friend? Those who have one may well inform you that it is; it’s not altogether commonplace nor inconsequential for one’s close associate to pass entirely truthful and helpful criticism on one’s appearance, social operations, endeavours of humour, navigations of sexual operations, linguistic agility, assertions of style, photographic aptitude, and overall personal flair, all in a swirling fusion of affectionate compliments and cutting slurs, sitting at a bitchiness quotient (BQ) of well over 120 – using standard metric measurements, of course. This is given its distinguishing twist in the fact that one either flourishes on this associate’s advice eternally safe from their resentment if one is female, or eternally safe from their competition in the sexual marketplace if one is male (as ever in the movies, “gay” refers exclusively to homosexual males). To such privileged individuals, it must seem that those without this kind of connection must either be woefully ignorant of its benefits, or just not trying damn well hard enough to acquire it. The high school comedy G.B.F., by the openly gay director Darren Stein, agrees on the value of this commodity, and hopes to show viewers that neither its price nor its potential worth are to be underestimated. As with any friendship, it must be worked for to really mean anything, and once earned the returns yielded are considerable and rewarding.

Tanner Daniels (Michael J. Willett) and Brent Van Camp (Paul Iacono) are two gay guys in their last year of high school, closeted from everyone except each other and two close friends (whose names evade me). Brent, being the more brazen of the two, plans to come out in a dazzling display of gay alacrity at the school prom, catapulting him from his current status as low-profile comic book geek to sought after bestie and prominent entourage member – a g.b.f. is touted as the new must-have in all the film’s teenage girls’ magazines, and lively competition is sure to break out among the most popular female students in order to win the allegiance of the only gay in sight.

These girls are separated into three rival cliques, headed by three rival potentates: Fawcett Brooks (Sasha Pieterse), the glamourous blonde with the football captain boyfriend; Caprice Winters (Xosha Roquemore), the tall, black drama and show choir sovereign with the legs of an elongated Tyra Banks; and ’Shley (from Ashley) Osgood (Andrea Bowen), the sleek redhead Mormon, bright in countenance and dim in intellect. Brent is set to begin his campaign of social promotion when an awkward mishap before prom involving a Grinder profile outs Tanner to the whole school instead. Brent, loath to compete as the school’s principal gay, angrily halts his plans and when the rift between his and Tanner’s – the far more timid friend, who had always wanted to hover well below any sentient person’s gaydar – popularity levels quickly widens, so does the upsetting gap in their friendship.

Tanner is swept through a blur of drunken high school gatherings and glossy queen-bee iced coffee dates, and is the camp Eliza Doolittle to Fawcett, Caprice and ’Shley’s sleek professors of social manoeuvering and fashion trends. They each ingratiate themselves to him, employing hookups with tall, dark foreign exchange students (Caprice); warm and friendly intimate socialising and emotional upliftment (Fawcett); and a well-meaning campaign to show him the light of heterosexual truth and righteousness (’Shley), but each is shown to miss the mark of how it is one is meant to approach the acquisition of a g.b.f.

Gay best friends, Stein seems to say, work best for one when treated as one would one’s other straight friends: a connection is required primarily on a human level, and gayness is to be seen as a character trait and not a class of citizenship or category of society. One’s friends don’t wish for one’s own personal advancement to be the basis of a friendship, but a growing bond of trust and affection and mutual service. A gay best friend, in other words, is most beneficial when not deployed as a social tactic, but recognised as a broad and complex soul, of whom a homosexual orientation is a large and inextricable part, but who is also constituted of a great deal more.

The girls who succeed in winning Tanner’s allegiance are the ones who make personal sacrifices for his sake. They are duly rewarded, with his fond service as a friend and social reinforcement, and they consequently grow in understanding. It all sounds rather treacly, but Stein largely manages to dispel the perilous vapours of sappiness that so often attend these stories. His emphasis is on the experiences of his gay characters, and the development of the straight characters from their prejudices to fuller appreciation is something of an afterthought, or secondary consideration to him. The gloom of loneliness when one feels one is without allies, and the joy of meaningful companionship, however asexual and unromantic, shine through what, on its surface, may well appear to be a vapid and aimless story.

As is nearly inevitable with a high school movie, this one gets by largely on its script. The release of Clueless, some time back in the 1990s, hailed a new era of post-John Hughes high school films, in which teenagers displayed a stunning set of verbal skills and archive of pop culture references. The jokes are standard – which is to say, pretty good, found mostly in the range from amiable to sly, but never uproarious – and the performances are clearly intelligent and driven. (By far the best is the brief appearance of gay culture’s de facto duchess, Megan Mullally, as Brent’s shrewd and concerned mother.) A clear intention and idea is delivered in the screenplay, neither too faintly nor too tendentiously, and while it’s clearly related to a political matter, it smartly sidesteps partisan politics and moves right in for observations on personal relationships. But the script lacks a clear view of its characters as real people, grounded in a real time and place and beset with real human emotions. They’re more than mere talking points, but they’re less than living, breathing beings.

The more regrettable lapse, however, is in the aesthetic realisation of the script’s ideas. High school films are capable of great accomplishments if a sufficiently strong artistic vision is present to draw them up that high. What this requires is a story and characters of a considerable degree of invention, but, more than that, a concentrated focus on creation and the rigourous effort on the director’s part to fulfill his vision. G.B.F. on its own terms is entertaining, but the mention of the real sovereign of cinema’s high schools – for gays and straights alike – does more to unfavourably compare this film to the best in its genre than to build it up towards that standard.

That sovereign, of course, is Lindsay Lohan, and the best in the genre, naturellement, is Mean Girls. The unforgettable energy and emotional immediacy of Lohan is the most wondrous talent of any performer of her generation, and any filmmaker who wishes to invoke her while his own youthful performers are in the shot, however admiring he may be of her or them, can only be doing his film a disservice. Mean Girls is certainly not the absolute best that contemporary cinema has to offer, but it’s on one of the higher rungs, and G.B.F. is hung up a little lower: like its beloved precursor, it has a clever script with sharp dialogue, and its performances are competent. But these are not adept to the stunning degree of Mean Girls’s script and performances, and what’s missing is the delightful sense of an inspired collaboration, in which everyone involved works towards a common purpose and shared artistic goal. The difference is the overt service G.B.F. pays to its gay viewers by having two gay characters in leading roles, while Mean Girls pays the implicit compliment of being even better suited for gay audiences’ entertainment and aesthetic appreciation. I was reminded just this afternoon of my hero, Oscar Wilde, telling us that the more abstract and ideal an artist is, the more we can learn from them of our times and the prevailing moods and ideas. A film about a straight woman is certainly a more abstract form of queer cinema and more nuanced object of queer identification than a film about two homosexual men, but is it necessarily a bad thing for queers to be getting this inadequate form of representation in movies, when before they were getting no representation? I don’t wish to delve into this matter presently, which seems to me more of a political issue than an aesthetic one, and I acknowledge that this is a sign of progress, which is heartening for the future of queer cinema. But we certainly can’t stop here, as Wilde affirms in another undying utterance I recently encountered: “Bad art is a great deal worse than no art at all.”


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