'Misfits': Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A documentary that's thin on new insights

Danish director Jannik Splidsboel's documentary looks at three teenagers frequenting the same LGBT center in Tulsa, Okla., the "city of 2,000 churches"

Three Tulsa teens are the protagonists of Misfits, a slender nonfiction feature from Danish director Jannik Splidsboel (How Are You) -- and not only because it clocks in at just 75 minutes. What unites the very different leads is the fact that they all hang out at the Open Arms Youth Project, a center that welcomes queer kids under 20 in this Bible-Belt city that, or so the film informs viewers at the start, has 400,000 inhabitants, more than 2,000 churches but only one LGBT center. Their universal stories of adolescent growing pains have an added difficulty because of their sexuality but the film struggles to add something new or insightful to these largely familiar coming-out stories. Included in the Berlin lineup as a potential Teddy best documentary contender, this will struggle to break out of the gay ghetto.

Larissa is a spunky, 17-year-old lesbian who’s had to move in with her girlfriend when her home situation became impossible. "D," a pansexual, is only 16 but already lives on his own after escaping from his abusive mother and he also seems quite independent and, apart from his empty fridge, well-adjusted (at the center he explains he's already had "so much therapy to fix what was wrong" and clearly it's done him good). Compared to these two youngsters, 19-year-old Benny has it relatively easy, still living at home with his parents and older brother, Gage, though his mother admits that initially she thought it was going to be "me and my son against the world," and that it took a lot of time and effort for the other men of the household to accept the notion that Ben was gay.

Splidsboel alternates off-the-cuff interview material and scenes that feel somewhat staged with footage that simply follows the protagonists around as they go about their business as teens, with Benny complaining about his horrible workday at a bagel shop and dreaming of marrying a sexy, young and rich doctor ("Hey, it happened in Maid in Manhattan!"); D trying to get a bike and the necessary paperwork so that he can find a job and Larissa, who’s still in school, experimenting with painting on a black chin curtain (like D's pansexuality, transgender issues, which are mentioned in passing a few times, are not explored in any depth).

A heart-to-heart between Ben and his brother; a talk between D and his biological father, whom he met only later in life and who turned out to be much nicer than what his mom had him believe; and a moment in which Larissa and her girlfriend canoodle in a tunnel decorated with colored Christmas lights are all quite touching and heartwarming. But all of these potential highlights feel too obviously staged to have much of an impact, with the presence of Splidsboel palpable just beyond the edge of the frame. If anything, besides the problems Larissa and D have had with their parents, which are left practically unexplored, these queer kids and their adolescent struggles feel quite normal, which is great news for the protagonists but doesn’t exactly make for a very revealing or insightful movie. 

Splidsboel also doesn’t do all that much with the film’s Oklahoma setting. He occasionally inserts cityscapes that give a sense of place and once daringly cuts from a drag performer at the Open Arms center to a (random) church choir also trying to work the crowd. But they do not really give a sense of how their religious and conservative surroundings have impacted their specific lives and decisions as queer kids. Even the center itself remains a rather vague entity, with the people that work there only barely glimpsed and no clear sense of what its goals or history are apart from providing a safe space for queer and questioning youth and occasionally facilitating group discussions that allow the youngsters to formulate and express their ideas on gay- and religion-related topics. Indeed, the admission that the center and the people that hang out there offer the teenagers something of a second family comes only in the final stretch and is something that the film preceding it hasn’t illustrated all that well.  

Production companies: Sonntag Pictures, Mataray Film

Director: Jannik Splidsboel

Producer: Sara Stockmann

Executive producer: Jakob Schaumburg

Co-producer: Stina Gardell

Director of photography: Henrik Bohn Ipsen

Editor: Mikael Kloster Ebesen

Music: Mathias Blomdahl

Sales: Wide House

 

No rating, 75 minutes

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