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The bittersweet pangs of lived experience supply a pleasing ripple of authenticity throughout Miles, which helps keep it engaging even as the conflicts become increasingly manufactured. Inspired by director and co-writer Nathan Adloff’s time as a teenager on his high school’s otherwise female volleyball team, the comedy-drama benefits from an empathetic understanding of the big-city yearnings of a small-town gay youth. If it’s ultimately a tad soft to go beyond LGBT festivals and VOD windows, the movie gets a helpful dose of heart and warmth from Molly Shannon’s work as the protagonist’s careworn mother.
A senior at Pondley High in Illinois in 1999, Miles Walton (Tim Boardman) can’t wait to graduate so he can move to Chicago and study to be a filmmaker. He explores the early flutters of romance on a gay chatroom, where he signs on as Small Town Boy and envies the freedoms awaiting him just three hours away. He also finds temporary escape in his love of movies, working part-time at a local theater. The musical gurgle of dial-up internet and the flicker of analog film projection give the movie a nostalgic flavor.
Miles’ English-teacher mother Pam (Shannon) gently encourages his ambitions, though his father Ron (Stephen Root), a sour, emotionally withholding type, suggests the nearby community college might be a more realistic goal. Pam has been quietly putting up with Ron’s philandering, but when he drops dead as a result of a sudden illness, she discovers that his extramarital relationship has left the family broke. Even Miles’ college fund is gone.
The script by Adloff and Justin D.M. Palmer (who also co-wrote the director’s 2012 debut feature, Nate & Margaret) falters a little in trying to decide whose story this is — Miles’ or Pam’s. But the movie eventually finds an agreeable balance as resourceful Miles takes his future in his own hands and Pam attempts to shake off the pall of a joyless marriage.
While his mother begins dating school board superintendent Lloyd (Paul Reiser), Miles explores scholarship avenues, finding a potential track to the men’s volleyball team at Loyola. Undeterred by Pondley’s lack of a male team, he ignores the advice of the school counselor (a nice cameo from Yeardley Smith) and tries out for the girls’ team, correctly insisting that there’s nothing in the rules to prevent him from doing so. He finds an unexpected ally in Coach Leslie Wayne (Missi Pyle, delightful as always, if underused), who becomes his staunchest supporter when rival teams start racking up losses and crying unfair advantage.
The script and direction show their weakness in the rumbles of protest that build to an angry school board meeting with threats of suspension. However, those formulaic developments function well enough, serving not only to demonstrate Miles’ backbone but also to allow Pam to reorder her priorities as she clashes with Lloyd, a coward averse to rocking the boat.
There’s little that’s surprising in Miles, which isn’t helped by flat visuals and an over-reliance on wispy, whimsical music to establish its sweet serio-comedy tone. And while all the requisite elements are in place for minor-key laughs with periodic shots of adrenaline provided by the sports scenes, the film’s rhythms are never quite as sharp or as driving as they should be.
But the actors are a likeable bunch, and it’s refreshing to see a movie about a gay teenager that’s not about the trials of coming out and seeking acceptance. Despite the occasional faint murmur of homophobia, Miles’ sexuality is never the issue. The fact that, at 17, he’s comfortable in his skin and sees no reason to hide should help the film connect with young LGBT audiences.
Venue: Provincetown Film Festival
Cast: Tim Boardman, Molly Shannon, Missi Pyle, Paul Reiser, Stephen Root, Yeardley Smith, Annie Golden, Ethan Phillips, Malcolm Gets
Production companies: Cranium Entertainment, American Film Productions, Turquoise Horse, in association with Odin’s Eye Entertainment
Director: Nathan Adloff
Screenwriters: Nathan Adloff, Justin D.M. Palmer
Producer: Ash Christian, Anne Clements, Stephen Israel, Lisa G. Black, Devon Schneider
Executive producers: Hunter Robert Baker, Abraham Brown, Kelly Burkhardt, Monika Casey, Kim DeVenne, Michael Favelle, Grey Sample, Jim Stephens, George Voskericyan
Director of photography: Hunter Robert Baker
Production designer: Laura Miller
Costume designer: Christopher Oroza
Music: Justin Bell, Jonathan Levi Shanes
Editor: Yaniv Dabach
Casting: Rich Delia
Sales: Odin’s Eye Entertainment
Not rated, 87 minutes.
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