'Stonewall': TIFF Review

Not the most imaginative or politically trenchant retelling, but entertaining and at times quite moving.

Roland Emmerich's drama revisits the 1969 riots in New York's Greenwich Village that ushered the fledgling gay rights movement into a bolder new era.

As one of a relatively small group of out gay directors who have done very well out of mainstream Hollywood, Roland Emmerich's commitment to tracing the roots of gay pride through its most galvanizing event comes with an admirable sense of giving something back. If the resulting drama, Stonewall, seldom escapes its cliches or cookie-cutter characters, it also recounts a political origin story in relatable, often affecting terms that should connect with a young LGBT audience curious to know more about those who paved the way toward equality and social acceptance.

Roadside Attractions would be smart to target that core demographic with this Sept. 25 release, which marshals appealing, capable performers in a glossy package that fulfills its ambitions, albeit without a great deal of authenticity or grit. Even with its many hackneyed ingredients, this is a marked improvement on Emmerich's last foray beyond the popcorn blockbuster, Anonymous, a pedestrian 2011 period piece questioning the authorship of Shakespeare's works.

Much of the digging into history in this fictionalized drama, penned by playwright and TV writer Jon Robin Baitz, is confined to context-establishing introductory screen text detailing the lack of civil rights and widespread stigmatization prevailing at the time. Corresponding text at the end details the outcomes of the film's handful of true-life characters and the legacy of the Stonewall riots as a stepping stone in the gay liberation struggle. They also underline the sad statistic that members of the LGBT community account for 40 percent of homeless youth in America today.

That figure is reflected with compassion in the film's core group of characters, who congregate on Christopher Street stoops and around the mob-owned Stonewall Inn, turning tricks for cash and sleeping by the dozen in shabby flophouse rooms in Manhattan's West Village.

The release of the first trailer for Stonewall sparked early controversy over what appeared to be the marginalization of the transgender, black, Latino and lesbian insta-activists long credited with manning the front lines of the spontaneous 1969 riots that heralded a new era in gay rights. Instead, the story is framed through the experience of the very white, very wholesome Indiana refugee Danny (Jeremy Irvine), who looks like he stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch jock dreamboat catalog.

Diversity representation mostly functions as colorful window-dressing, with notes of humor pretty much confined to routine sassy attitude, and when the riot starts, the Wonder Bread lead gets to throw the first brick. But the secondary characters are treated with affection and respect, and far from sidelined during the climactic clash.

The events surrounding Stonewall have been chronicled across a wide fact-through-fiction span in books, documentaries, plays and the occasional narrative film, notably Nigel Finch's identically titled 1995 indie feature. That film featured a similar central character dynamic to this one — cute Midwestern twink, fresh off the bus, gets taken under the wing and into the bed of a flamboyant drag queen. The latter character in the Emmerich-Baitz version is androgynous Ray (Jonny Beauchamp), who only dabbles in drag and whose unrequited love for Danny is drawn too perfunctorily to pack much emotional weight.

Ray presents his family of "girlfriends" as Queen Cong (Vladimir Alexis) and Little Orphan Annie (Caleb Landry Jones), along with the more conventional hustler dude Lee (Alex C. Nachi) and the self-explanatory Quiet Paul (Ben Sullivan). Orbiting around that group's fringes is the fabulous Marsha P. Johnson (Otoja Abit), a real-life African-American drag queen who went on to be a force in post-Stonewall gay activism.

Given the historical significance of Judy Garland, who died just days before the riots, references abound, with Danny figuring as the story's Dorothy Gale, catapulted from Kansas to Oz. That eye-opening new world is both a heady upper, with its unfamiliar freedoms and its opportunity for the first time to be around other openly gay men, and a brutal downer, with widespread discrimination and police victimization. The latter aspect is shown in a scene in which Danny gets a vicious beating from cops in the Meatpacking District, back before it was a fashion destination, when gay men cruised the streets at night and had sex in the backs of trucks.  

Baitz's script might have benefited from a few more such scenes of down-and-dirty Stonewall-era specificity, of the kind documented in books that defined the gay experience of the time, like John Rechy's City of Night and Edmund White's States of Desire. One scene late in the film is borderline laughable in its depiction of a leather bar populated by the youngest, prettiest, most scrubbed-looking S&M boys in history — more Bel Ami than Tom of Finland, for those who know their homoerotic iconography.

While Danny's narrative arc is a well-traveled one, Emmerich and editor Adam Wolfe do a smooth job of interweaving his bumpy entree into New York gay life with the past he fled in small-town Indiana, where his high school football coach father (David Cubitt) suspects Danny's secret and is determined to snuff it out.

Danny is in love with quarterback Joe (Karl Glusman), who plays it straight but is a willing participant in clandestine sexual trysts. When they're caught in the act and word spreads, Joe turns his back on Danny as he becomes an outcast. Despite her evident sorrow, Danny's fearful mother (Andrea Frankle) is unable to intervene when he's forced to leave home before completing school, thus jeopardizing his scholarship to Columbia. His kid sister Phoebe (Joey King) is already developing her own liberal views, as opposed to those of her conservative religious parents, and she's the most distraught at her brother's departure.

None of those story elements could be called fresh, but the film's sincerity is disarming. So while it risks overshadowing the actual Stonewall story, the central thread of a gay youth's coming of age and political awakening works quite well.

Baitz's script sketches the instinctive embrace of gay identity by characters already marginalized by their ethnicity or class, contrasting that with the more circumspect behavior of members of the Mattachine Society. That early gay rights group is represented primarily by Trevor (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who becomes Danny's lover for a time, causing friction with Ray. Gay rights pioneer Bob Kohler (Patrick Garrow) is depicted somewhat more prosaically as a sage observer, stuck with such on-the-nose dialogue as "Love isn’t always pretty," or "They're not like us, Trevor, these kids have nothing left to lose."

Plotting concerning the involvement of different police divisions — some being paid off to carry out regular bar raids and others more legitimately involved in a crackdown on organized crime and underage prostitution — borders on haphazard.

That includes keeping occasional track of the investigation of vice squad deputy Seymour Pine (Matt Craven), who later apologized for his role in the Stonewall raids; and observing the sinister operations of thuggish Ed Murphy (Ron Perlman), who segued from pimping young boys to become a semi-respected figure in the gay community, despite his questionable past. But this fact-based area is perhaps the drama's weakest element, with a distinct feeling that crucial connective tissue has been lost along the way. (There is, however, an archly amusing scene in which Danny is forcibly enlisted by Murphy to trick for a J. Edgar Hoover-type in full Joan Crawford drag.)

While it's condensed from several nights into one, the riot itself is more persuasively staged. Even though we know it's coming — both from historical knowledge and from the footage that opens the movie before jumping back three months — the clash generates sparks both emotional and physical. Some will quibble about the depiction of who led the charge (a minor lesbian character played by Joanne Vannicola is the first shown here violently resisting arrest), but the events portrayed and their enduring significance inevitably have a stirring impact. Besides, the degree to which urban legend has contributed over the decades to the Stonewall mythology probably makes factual accuracy irrelevant at this point.

Filmed in Montreal, the movie has a studio look that might have benefited from more contextualizing shots of New York, beyond the main Sheridan Square set. But the deep colors and textured shadows of the many nighttime scenes make it attractive, even if cinematographer Markus Forderer's predilection for magic-hour light in exterior scenes adds to the artificiality. A more liberal hand with tunes of the era might have been welcome in augmenting Rob Simonsen's serviceable score. Likewise the period sets and costume designs, while generally fine, could have used a more lived-in look.

But all in all, while Stonewall hits every obvious, manipulative button with a forceful hand, it's also consistently engaging, relating experiences grounded in the turbulent past that should resonate for many in our more complacent present.

Production company: Centropolis Entertainment
Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Jonny Beauchamp, Joey King, Caleb Landry Jones, Matt Craven, David Cubitt, Vladimir Alexis, Ben Sullivan, Andrea Frankle, Patrick Garrow, Alex C. Nachi, Karl Glusman, Otoja Abit, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Ron Perlman
Director: Roland Emmerich
Screenwriter: Jon Robin Baitz
Producers: Roland Emmerich, Michael Fossat, Marc Frydman, Carsten Lorenz
Executive producers: Adam Press, Kirstin Winkler, Michael Roban
Director of photography: Markus Forderer
Production designer: Michele Laliberte
Costume designer: Simonetta Mariano
Music: Rob Simonsen
Editor: Adam Wolfe
Casting: Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee
Sales: Goldcrest

Rated R, 129 minutes