Sometimes a movie just works, despite its many mistakes: It might not be particularly original or smart, it might wobble on shaky legs and feel familiar in all the wrong ways -- and yet it reaches us. Witness Dorian Blues, a coming-of-age coming-out story featuring nearly every convention of its genre. How, with its over-explanatory script, clichéd ideas and overused voiceover, does it manage to make a connection with its audience? Here's one answer: Michael McMillian.
McMillian, playing Dorian, appears in almost every scene. He must endure countless humiliations, as a character and an actor, including a series of Gestalt therapy sessions, a lap dance from a stripper/prostitute (with a heart of gold, of course), an ill-fated encounter with a leather freak and sentimental voiceovers that might have withered lesser men. But through it all, McMillian is a delight: real, warm, open, adorable and accessible. It's a pleasure spending time in his company.
In fact, the acting is good across the board, with strong performances from Lea Coco (as Dorian's jock-brother, Nicky), Steven C. Fletcher (as their harsh father) and Mo Quigley (their wispy mother). First-time writer/director Tennyson Bardwell (can that be his real name?) certainly got half of his job right. As for the writing -- well, it depends. Some lines are wearying in their effort: "The only difference between my mother and the Berlin Wall? Some people got past that wall." Others are hard to take, as when Dorian describes himself as "a stereotypical gay." (Is there a homosexual on this planet who uses the word "gay" as a noun?) But there are gems, too. When Dorian's therapist asks him why he won't tell his father that he's gay, Dorian says, "Because it would be the ugliest moment of my life, and because I am not that strong." Clear, honest and powerful. Good writing.
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The film opens when Dorian is a senior in high school, beginning to come to terms with his sexuality. At school, he has no friends (hard to believe, by the way); at home, he and Nicky are somewhat reluctant allies. Their father rules the roost with seething narcissism and retrograde notions of masculinity; their mother is a blank, rolling pennies at the kitchen table. The first time Dorian dares to differ, opining that Kennedy was a better man than Nixon, his father launches into an attack disguised as dialectic. "I got shot down, but it was worth it," Dorian reports in voiceover, "because it jarred something."
Once jarred, Dorian goes through a series of gay rites of passage: coming out to himself, confessing to his priest, trying to "convert" to being straight, coming out to others, moving to New York, enduring his first heartbreak and so on. Much of the movie passes in summary, using montage and voiceover to convey important episodes or an ongoing series of events. This technique is far from ideal -- film works largely through dramatization or, in the words of everyone's high school English teacher, showing as opposed to telling -- but, for the most part, Dorian Blues gets away with it. Meanwhile, the film's central conflict is Dorian's relationship with his father, which only darkens when Dorian reveals that he's gay. "You don't know the meaning of the word," his father replies. Dorian's comeback: "It means I like men -- not you, maybe, but in general." Nice.
Bardwell, who also produced, is not gay. He has dedicated the film to a gay friend, Brian Varga, on whom he based the character of Dorian. (The character of Nicky, "the straight jock," is a stand-in for Bardwell.) Varga was the first gay person Bardwell met, at college, and the two became friends; in 1990, Varga died of AIDS. This information adds depth to the film, but the sweetness is already there. One of the best things about Dorian Blues is the relationship between Dorian and Nicky. It's easy to see how it could have gone, with the athletic, popular brother failing to understand or accept the gay one, or the gay one despising the straight one for his privilege. Instead, what happens is an organic give-and-take; sometimes Nicky comes through, and sometimes he doesn't. Different though they are, the brothers love each other, and they show it.
In the end, Dorian Blues is well worth seeing. Yes, Bardwell made some unfortunate choices, not the least of which is the title. (The film's only reference to Oscar Wilde comes during the awkward scene in which Dorian meets his first love.) The emotional lessons at the end are also a bit hard to stomach; in fact, they don't seem fair to Dorian. But there is a warmth and a sparkle to Dorian Blues that makes it excellent company, even if you've seen your share of similar indies. Bardwell must truly miss his friend.