Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Curiosity of Chance

So the other night I watched a little gem of a movie, The Curiosity of Chance. And then I watched it again right after. Well, actually not right after. First I got on the interwebs to see if there was more info about this unexpectedly awesome movie on Wikipedia, followed the external link to the official website, nosed around that for a while, listened to the linked radio interview with writer/director Russell P. Marleau and producer Lisa Schahet, and then went Googling for blog posts just to make sure that one glass of red wine too many hadn’t addled my quality judgement… that, no, I wasn’t alone in falling utterly in love with this movie I only came across by a random chain of… well… curiosity, aptly enough. This was at maybe… um… six in the morning, judging by the tweet in which I proclaimed it a new favourite and “the best high school movie John Hughes never made”. It was after that tweet, at about the crack of dawn, that I thought, fuck it, and just stuck it back on to play again.

So what is it that drew me back in so immediately, that made me actually kind of tempted to watch it a third time directly after that second viewing? OK, so there’s maybe a little element of wish-fulfilment to it, a hint of a Mary Sue in the character of Chance, but one that I found completely irresistible because it’s probably exactly the sort of Mary Sue I’d be culpable of myself if I were to write a high school movie. Maybe a certain fondness for the 80s teen movies that it’s paying homage to, and a nostalgic identification with its setting in the decade itself — maybe these were part of its charm for me. But it’s more than that, I think. With wit and flair and more than a few quirks of… unusual perspective, it manages to function not just as one of those sweet “coming-of-age” comedy-dramas where the writer (one suspects, at least) is blithely rewriting their high school history the way it coulda-shoulda-woulda been, but as something utterly open and sincere, defusing sentimentality with a wry acknowledgement of its own artifice and developing its central character with a depth of honesty that makes him a true subject rather than just a cipher. Somewhere in that radio interview, producer Lisa Schahet uses the phrase “labour of love” when asked about the difficulties of filming abroad with foreign crew. She doesn’t apply it to herself and Marleau, not it in so many words, but it’s clear this movie was exactly that for pretty much everyone involved.

But what’s it about? I hear you ask.

As the opening caption tells us, the film is set “somewhere in Europe, sometime in the 80s”. Its main character, Chance Marquis (Tad Hilgenbrink), is a student at Brinkland International High School, shown in the opening shots looking pretty cool-for-cats in his Adidas t-shirt and top, walking in through the doors of aforesaid high school as, in voiceover, he talks of looking back on his sophomore year, seeing himself as a “uniquely tragic wreck”. He talks of perspective and problems, draws us in with the promise of a tale to come. But… “this isn’t where my story starts,” Chance tells us. Cue fast rewind / cut back to one year earlier and our hero’s initial arrival at this school as a transfer student strutting foppishly into school in top hat and cane, bow tie and suit jacket, leather trousers and sneakers. Chance is kind of kooky, we’ll quickly realise, a bit of an oddball. Chance is as gay as a feather duster, we’ll also soon learn, and openly so. When called a faggot by the local bullying jock, Brad, his response is “Oh, really?! No!” He’s not ashamed of what he is, the movie tells us more than once. Why the fuck should he be? In fact, while the problems that result from homophobia are very much in focus, the film just isn’t interested in all that tedious “Oh noes! Poor gayz suffering in silence!” shite, so there’s no question of his sexuality from the start, nothing secret about it at all. There are other stories that go with being gay, the film insists, than the tedious tale of the trials and tribulations of the tortured queer kid just discovering his sexuality blah blah fucking blah. Coming-of-age is more than coming out. Why the fuck should the gay kid’s self-discovery automatically be about “accepting” his sexuality? Fuck that shit.

In best high school movie mode, then, we get the classic tropes and twists of teen romantic comedy. We can expect friendships to be struck with kindred spirit outsiders — Hank, the dorky staff photographer on the school newspaper who carries a steel briefcase clutched to his chest, obsessively protecting its contents from the principal’s snooping, and Twyla, the uber-bitch who doesn’t take shit from nobody, who would rather hang with the socially “toxic” Chance than play the bullshit status games. We can expect a relationship with a love interest to be forged, tested, broken and reconciled — said love-interest being Levi (Brett Chukerman), the boy-next-door and “first string forward” on the soccer team. The conflict with bullying Brad is of course going to come to a head, the table slowly set in order to be, in the end, triumphantly turned. And there are parental issues with Chance’s military father (Chris Mulkey) to be resolved — though “Sir” as he’s known comes across as a charmingly sympathetic figure, his failures born of bafflement rather than bigotry; he doesn't judge Chance, just doesn't get him. And so on. Before the movie is over we’ll see a fistful of those archetypal life-affirming “Alright!” moments designed to put a little smile on the face of even the least sentimental. I won’t give examples cause it seems churlish of me to spoil them... even though you’ll probably see what's coming as soon as, say, “the battle of the high school bands” is introduced as a Chekhov’s gun not just loaded but with the trigger cocked. There’s no denying that the clichés are there, but that’s part of the fun of it, part of the point of it. It’s a high school movie and it’s no more ashamed of that than Chance is of being gay.

As a film that wears its genre on its sleeve, there is one quirk of the movie (one of those quirks of unusual perspective) that’s a little jarring at first. The whole of this low budget indie flick was filmed on location in Belgium, with only three cast members brought over from the States — Hilgenbrink, Chukerman, and Mulkey — everyone else being local talent, some old hands and others complete beginners. The result is a setting that’s clearly modelled on an American high school but is populated almost entirely by kids and teachers with decidedly European accents — even when they have names like Brad and are swaggering around in letterman sweaters like an extra in Grease. It's to the credit of the local actors that they generally wear their roles well enough that you don't really care after a while, but for the first five minutes, I have to admit, I was distractedly wondering why the fuck this left field setting had been chosen, feeling that I just didn’t buy this island of Americana with its bizarrely Teutonic bit-parts. But the contextual reason is, it turns out, that Marleau was writing from experience, having attended an international high school himself. And textually as well, once you get past the initial weirdness you realise that it makes a strange sort of sense; it universalises the story but it also foregrounds the bubble-reality status of the world of high school, suggests that on some level all the kids are “outsiders” — All-American Levi as much as oddball Chance. Adolescence is another country, it says, and seen through this lens of hybridised culture, that characteristically American high school society of cliques and coteries seems every bit as role-played as the pirate eye patch Chance wears on his second day of school.

What we get in the end (as for instance in the montage scene of Chance and his friends exploring the unnamed European city the school is set in) is not just a different perspective but a wider perspective. The world outside this high school is not just one that has drag clubs where Chance can discover his inner diva; it’s one where that drag scene is… an integral and accepted part of the culture, less marginal, more mainstream. The setting might be Belgium or it might be Berlin but what it is for sure is something more than Biloxi or Baltimore. It’s not a liberal or libertine’s utopia, but neither is it a seedy dive; it’s just a gay club of queens and queers at ease with who they are, different without that making them “decadent”. Ultimately, I think, the European setting ties in neatly to the message of liberation, switching small town Middle American mores for big city Old World sophistication as the fundamental context, as if to redefine the terms of the conflict, as if to subtly reinforce the idea that… you know what? The world-at-large is on Chance’s side. For all that the high school is a microcosm, the bullying homophobic jock in the letterman sweater doesn’t represent society. Society, outside that crazy little crucible of high school — and even inside it given half a chance — thinks that jock is a complete arse-wipe.

This unusal perspective makes The Curiosity of Chance the high school movie for those of us who thought Molly Ringwald should have gone for Ducky at the end of Pretty in Pink, or been madeover by Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club rather than vice-versa. It’s the high school movie for those of us who felt that on some level all those high school movies were casting us as losers, freaks and geeks who’d always be in the shadow of the Ferris Buellers of that fictive world. Most of all it’s the high school move for those of us who were growing up gay at that time and wishing we had our place in all those stories of love-versus-social-structures, wishing someone would do the story where the guy gets the guy. A love letter to Hughes’s teen movie ouvre, The Curiosity of Chance doesn’t seek to subvert the genre so much as to complete it, to offer us a perspective that was missing in those less enlightened times. I won’t deny that it’s a perspective I identify with pretty deeply, for obvious reasons, but it’s one that speaks to a much wider audience than just teh gayz, I’d say. If Hughes’s movies deal with teens trying to figure out where they fit in, Marleau’s gives us the story of the teen who chooses to stand out. Why, one of his friends asks him in a key scene, if he has to take all the flak that comes from being gay, does he give people more ammo by dressing like he does? “If you had a choice,” he says, “of being ostracised for wearing a weird hat or for being gay, which would you choose?” It’s moments like this that dig down under the surface of Chance, counteract the compensatory/consolatory fantasy of his confidence to reveal a richer character. Free of angst and overblown dama but showing the defensiveness in the defiance, that little exchange encapsulates the emotional integrity at the core of the movie, ringing so true that you can’t help but wonder how much of Marleau is in Marquis.

But this is making it all sound terribly serious and sensitive. Not that it isn’t, but it’s also funny as fuck in places, as in Chance’s choked mugging in the office of Principal Smelker, “quite possibly the most odorous human I’ve ever encountered.” Hilgenbrink gives a great performance throughout, for my money, bold when required but never too broad, demonstrating a deft touch when it comes to comic timing, and all the better because the comedy doesn’t rely on campy queen clichés. Flamboyant as fuck but more strutting than swishy, his Chance manages to flame and yet never strikes you as the sort of limp-wristed stereotype designed to make all red-blooded faggots cringe. One-liners that could be catty come across as quick-witted. Gestures that could seem flouncy come across as — to borrow a significant phrase from the film — dramatic flair. The performance that Chance makes of his life could hardly be called straight-acting, but I’m not sure “camp” would be the right word for it at all. Even when the humour resides in his coming to terms with the utterly foreign notion of “‘football’… ‘foot’-’ball’… ‘futtball’…” it’s as much about quirkiness as queerness.

So, yeah. All in all, I don’t think I’ve felt so much plain old-fashioned affection for a movie since Hedwig. It’s not a movie that aspires to cinematic greatness, the solemn import of the ponderously profound. And as comedies go, it’s not the most gut-bustingly funny film I’ve ever seen. But it’s a tribute to John Hughes that outshines the originals, I think, an exemplary instance of its idiom. It’s funny and touching, uplifting and insightful, the sort of movie that ought to put a smile on the face of anyone who’s got a soul, the sort of movie you can watch a hundred times over and still enjoy. The love that went into making it is palpable in every scene, and that gives it a quality you see in the best indie flicks, a quality of integrity that multiplies its charms even more. In that interview on the official website, the producer Lisa Schahet is asked what made them put their faith in this first-time director with such a left-field project. Her answer basically boils down to: we read the script. People read the script and they just wanted to make the movie, all down the line, from the production company in the US to the crew in Belgium. They read the script and knew they wanted to work on it.

I don’t find that surprising at all, to be honest.

Anyway, if there’s any justice in the world, this is a cult movie in the making. The awards it’s won are well-deserved, and I really do hope they translate into wider recognition and lasting success. A little indie flick like this — I suspect many people may never have heard of it, let alone see it, and I suspect a substantial number of those people would absolutely fucking adore it. So if you get a chance to see it, grab that chance. As I say, best high school movie John Hughes never made.


Blogger Colin Meier said...

Thanks Hal. I've been waiting for ages for the movie to be released in this country...still waiting. But now that you've reviewed it, I'll definitely get it. I think it's a fairly courageous move on the part of Tad Hilgenbrink, playing a gay role so soon after his (very straight) debut in Band Camp.

8:24 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Personally, I'm hoping it's because he's a big gaylord himself and is just gutsy enough not to hide it. And that he likes older men. Skinny ones with Scottish accents. And we shall meet on the set of Escape from Hell! when it's picked up by Sam Raimi and Hilgenbrink signs on to play Matthew and...

Hey, I can dream, can't I? It's my job.

Anyhoo, yeah, he shows serious potential in TCoC, I'd say. Somebody needs to give the man more roles like Chance that require real acting chops, as opposed to the American Pie / Disaster Movie / Lost Boys 2 disposable stuff.

5:59 pm  
Blogger Colin Meier said...

Re Escape From Hell : I'm hoping for the same thing! Both for Mr Hilgenbrink's sake, and yours, and (vicariously) mine :)

Having recently watched Ryan Reynold's performance in Smokin' Aces, I've become even more convinced that actors who can do comedy can do anything. James Franco is another good example.

8:37 pm  
Anonymous Kerry said...

Hey there hunny.

Yep, I'm resorting to saying hi through your comments...never said I was very original?

Being the 'housing-scheme' bumpkin I am, I haven't heard of this movie, however, as per your recommendation of 'The Prestige', I have learned to trust your yeah, I'll be hunting this movie down for a viewing.

Take care darlin.

9:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I completely agree with everything you said. Also it dosent hurt that Levin is hot as fuck

12:17 am  

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