Between the uptight harangues of the New Right and the P.C. nitpicking of gay activists, it's a wonder that anyone can get a mainstream movie involving homosexual life past the popcorn stand. To hear all the noise surrounding Philadelphia, you'd have thought the entire cast of characters had half the brainpower of Forrest Gump. None of the cultural combatants would admit that a mere movie has a hard time being all things to all people.

The bickering is likely to break out again once Americans get a look at The Sum of Us. It's set in a blue-collar household in Sydney, Australia, and its homegrown stars--Jack Thompson and Russell Crowe--don't have the glamour of back-to-back Oscar winner Tom Hanks. But this witty, bittersweet movie about the bond between a plucky widower and his gay son has already provoked some of the same complaints Philadelphia did.

Predictably, Newt's thought police would like to sweep it off the planet. Some proponents of "queer cinema," on the other hand, beef that Sum shies away from gay love scenes and that the father is an unrealistically tolerant parent.

Go ahead and argue. Meanwhile, Jeff Mitchell (Crowe) and his dad, Harry (Thompson), are a most intriguing odd couple, as theatergoers dis-covered when David Stevens's play turned into a surprise off-Broadway smash in 1990. Jeff is a rugby-playing plumber who, though 34, still has a touch of adolescent rebellion in him. Harry, a salt-of-the-earth harbor pilot, talks plainly, takes people at face value and, although he carps about quirks, has accepted his son's orientation with grace and wit. They're a couple of beer-drinking Aussie blokes happily free of pretensions, but that doesn't mean they're happy. Jeff worries aloud that he may never find love. Years after his wife's death, Harry's finally signed up with the local computer dating service, hoping for a second chance.

In the course of play and movie, both Mitchells get their shots, and we get glimpses of two courtship rituals. Down at the local gay pub, Jeff shyly flirts with a closeted gardener named Greg (John Polson), while Harry brings flowers and his charm to an attractive widow named Joyce (Deborah Kennedy). At bottom, The Sum of Us is more about connecting and caring than about sexual choices, and the obvious sincerity of the message rides high on a wave of good humor.

When Jeff brings Greg home for the night, his father can't help ruining the moment--not with disapproval but with disarming frankness and meddlesome encouragements. When Harry takes Joyce to dinner, we see the boy in him, aglow with the prospect of renewed love. Writer Stevens and co-directors Kevin Dowling and Geoff Burton also dust off an ancient movie device that brings us even closer to their protagonists: When most disturbed or pensive, Harry or Jeff simply looks into the camera and tells us what he's thinking or what he remembers. This can seem self-conscious in places, but we come to like these down-home Aussies so much that it rarely seems out of character. They speak their minds openly and honestly, and we accept it.

Young Crowe recently made his U.S. debut opposite Sharon Stone and Gene Hackman in The Quick and the Dead, but audiences who remember him better as a vicious skinhead in Romper Stomper may be surprised to see his vulnerability. Thompson made his mark as Major Thomas in Breaker Morant; he gets to use more range in this meditation on loneliness and familial love.

I don't think it's revealing too much to note that while AIDS and sexual politics loom offscreen here, they're not players in the drama. The Sum of Us turns on a startling twist, but for once the gay characters are not cast as victims of fate, and no one stands on a soapbox. No one has to. Here's a movie--beautifully written, skillfully acted, warm yet unsentimental--that takes its own sweet time to get us where it's going, which is straight to the heart. Newt himself might be moved.


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