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The protagonists of Those People are so white and wealthy they might as well be British gentry. And in fact, while writer-director Joey Kuhn‘s sleek debut feature is set in Gossip Girl territory, in the gilded halls of New York’s Upper East Side, having lead characters named Charles and Sebastian is an obvious indication that Brideshead Revisited was on his mind. The bright young things of this absorbing melodrama are poor little rich gays, floundering, respectively, in unrequited love and self-disgust. But making one of them the very poster child of one-percent entitlement run amok lowers the temperature.
The movie opens on an appropriate note of feverish high spirits, as the camera closes in on Charlie (Jonathan Gordon) and Sebastian (Jason Ralph). Sitting on the floor in their exquisitely disheveled formalwear, they sing along to a Pirates of Penzance recording in a contest to see who trips up first on the tongue-twisting lyrics to “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.”
The pair have been platonic best friends since grade school, 15 years earlier. However, modestly well-off Charlie’s romantic obsession with fabulously wealthy Sebastian would be evident even without the fine arts major’s sensuous paintings of his pal as a nude male odalisque. Charlie’s college professor suggests he branch out into other subjects, while his mother (Allison Mackie) keeps telling him the relationship is unhealthy. Sebastian, however, feigns obliviousness to his friend’s enslavement, growing more dependent on Charlie’s puppy-like devotion as his own personal life spirals deeper into crisis.
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Sebastian is the son of a disgraced Wall Street criminal in the Bernard Madoff mold. While his father (Daniel Gerroll) has been less-than-accepting of his son’s sexuality, Sebastian remains loyal to his convicted old man, initially glossing over the issue of how much he knew about the vast sums of other people’s money being illegally maneuvered. His mother is out of the picture, his family’s assets have been frozen and he’s stalked by paparazzi. Even his good friend London (Meghann Fahy) backs away after her association with “the son of the most hated man in New York” costs her a job. (And yes, there really is a character called London.)
Aspiring Vogue journalist Ursula (Britt Lower) and the group’s “token straight guy” Wyatt (Chris Conroy) more or less stick around, while dutiful Charlie agrees to move into Sebastian’s swanky apartment and play nursemaid through his drunken bouts of depression and anger. That becomes problematic when Charlie meets Tim (Haaz Sleiman), a handsome, older Lebanese concert pianist slumming it in a show-tune sing-along bar that appears to be popular West Village haunt Marie’s Crisis.
As the one grounded character sufficiently grown-up to know who he is and what he wants, Sleiman (The Visitor) ups the drama’s emotional stakes with his sensitive, quietly sexy performance. Particularly once Tim starts demonstrating his talents in recitals, and gets an offer of a plum job with the San Francisco Symphony, he becomes every cultured gay guy’s dream boyfriend. But Charlie can’t quite shake the Sebastian habit, and it turns out selfish Sebastian doesn’t want him to. “When you stop loving me, you’re going to realize what a terrible person I am,” whimpers Sebastian. Well, yes.
Investing in all this demands a degree of sympathy for lost, wounded Sebastian (I confess, I couldn’t locate it) and for two pampered main characters largely defined by their weaknesses. That factor limits the depth of both Gordon’s and Ralph’s performances, even though each of them is charming in his own way. (It’s only a mild distraction that Gordon seems spliced together from Zac Efron and Daniel Radcliffe.) Kuhn does, however, inject droll humor into scenes like a clumsy threeway during which the determined Charlie muscles in on Sebastian’s action with a Halloween bar hookup (Maxwell Jenkins) dressed as Dracula.
While the gentle blossoming of the love between Charlie and Tim is among the movie’s most pleasurable threads, it becomes less about the romantic triangle than about the belated path to emotional maturity of the two best friends. That process is aided on Sebastian’s side by a decisive prison visit with his coldly unrepentant dad.
Kuhn clearly adores his characters, making him willing to forgive their shortcomings and indulge their frustrating choices. But while it maintains intensity, the film is a tad studied in its melancholy wistfulness, with a few too many shots of pining Charlie or beautiful screwup Sebastian shooting forlorn gazes out of car windows. I spent a lot of time wanting to smack both of them and their self-involved friends.
Still, it’s a well-made, solidly acted first feature with an easy-on-the-eyes cast that should help it find an audience as a gay-themed VOD entry. It also looks elegant, evoking winter in New York with its warm-toned visuals and sharp use of locations like Lincoln Center Plaza, the ornate City Center auditorium and the elevated High Line.
Cast: Jonathan Gordon, Jason Ralph, Haaz Sleiman, Britt Lower, Meghann Fahy, Chris Conroy, Daniel Gerroll, Allison Mackie, Maxwell Jenkins
Production company: Little Big Horn Films
Director: Joey Kuhn
Screenwriter: Joey Kuhn; story by Kuhn & Grainne O’Hara Belluomo
Producers: Kimberly Parker, Joey Kuhn, Sarah Bremner
Director of photography: Leonardo D’Antoni
Production designer: Chris Morris
Costume designer: Mitchell Travers
Music: Adam Crystal
Editor: Sara Shaw
Casting: Susan Shopmaker
No rating, 88 minutes
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