[In the wake of the Tribeca festival’s postponement this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select fest entries that elected to premiere digitally for critics.]
If nothing else (and there is plenty else), Bo McGuire strikes a campily confident pose. Hirsute of face and loud of shirts, a Virginia Slim always dangling from his lips or fingers, this Alabama-born artist swans his way through his feature debut, Socks on Fire. A beguiling paean to a family undone by dysfunction, the film is an expansion of a 2018 short and just took best documentary honors at the 2020 virtual edition of the Tribeca Film Festival.
Title notwithstanding, the bad behavior on display here isn’t especially scorching. Perhaps that’s because McGuire, as onscreen narrator, meets it all with a poise that should be familiar to any queer person who has had to deflect a daily barrage of slings and arrows via a carefully cultivated and imperturbable sense of humor.
It certainly wasn’t funny when McGuire’s favorite aunt, Sharon, attempted to kick her gay, drag queen younger brother (the filmmaker’s Uncle John) out of the family home in Hokes Bluff, Alabama. Sharon was a free-thinking hell-raiser in her youth, and her tenacity was an inspiration to young Bo as he came to terms with his sexuality and identity. So her later-in-life turn to religious fundamentalism and homophobia was more than a shock to the system; it became especially ugly when Sharon and John’s mother (Bo’s grandmother) passed away leaving no legally binding will.
It’s easy to imagine a nerve-jangling, overdramatic version of this story, something along the lines of Jonathan Caouette’s hyperactive 2003 growing-up-queer memoir Tarnation. But McGuire takes a languid approach, interweaving archival home-video footage, one-on-one interviews and dramatic re-enactments (pointedly featuring both male and female performers as Aunt Sharon) into something more suited to his own gently probing drawl, as well as to the dew-slick, cicada-crooning American South in which Socks on Fire takes place.
The film is a sweet-tempered purgative more than a full-throated howl. And there’s probably a criticism to be made that the micro focus on a “white, working-class, Southern experience … inevitably queered,” as McGuire describes his aims in the press notes, dilutes the macro view of an America that is as often infuriating as it is appealing.
To a degree, Socks on Fire is supposed to take place in a fantasyland; a dreamy opening tracking shot through the McGuire house — in which actual family members and actors playing family members interact — suggests as much. But the elision of any mention of race, as well as the lack of any deeper exploration of the Bible Belt’s tendency toward stringent spirituality (the very thing that makes Aunt Sharon trade her lineal ties for ideological ones), often leaves one feeling ungrounded, adrift from the larger concerns the film is attempting implicitly to address.
McGuire is on surer footing whenever he shifts focus to his own development as a queer person within a milieu often stereotyped as unremittingly bleak and hostile. He found himself through the example of the people (many of them women) in his life, be it the loving relative who got him the Barbie doll he wanted for Christmas, the teacher who encouraged him when he needed it most or his Uncle John’s unapologetic embrace of his own feminine side.
In one tremendously moving scene, McGuire gathers many of the ladies who influenced him for a kind of impromptu outdoor devotional. “When these women talk at once, it is my favorite chorus,” he says as they stride toward camera. “I carry them in the way I walk and what I think and how I love.”
At such moments, it’s easy to see how Aunt Sharon’s actions are a betrayal that, for McGuire, cuts right down to flesh and bone. And how Socks on Fire is, in its unique way, a retort both catty and reverential, undergirded by a slim hope that someone lost will eventually find their way home.
Production companies: Blanton Boles Productions, Motto Pictures
With: Odessa Young, Chuck Duck, Carron Clark, Michael Patrick Nicholson, Bo McGuire, John Washington, Susan McGuire, Jim McGuire
Director-writer-producer: Bo McGuire
Producers: Tatiana Bears, Amy Dotson
Executive producers: Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements, Carolyn Hepburn, Jenifer Westphal, Joe Plummer, Ken Pelletier
Director of photography: Matt Clegg
Editor/co-writer: Max Allman
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)