'Sequin in a Blue Room': Film Review | Outfest 2019

An auspicious feature debut.

A 16-year-old who uses a hookup app to meet older men for sex gets in over his head in Samuel Van Grinsven’s Sydney-set first film.

Made on a modest budget at film school, Samuel Van Grinsven’s feature about a gay high-schooler seeking out sex with older men marks a stylish coming-out party for its young Australian director, if not for the film’s main character. What’s striking about 16-year-old Sequin (Conor Leach), a cherubic redhead growing up in Sydney, is that his queerness is taken for granted, unremarked upon by either his family or his peers. In that respect, as well as in the film’s exploration of social media as central to young lives, Sequin in a Blue Room feels very much of the moment, but it’s upholstered by an impressive command of good old-fashioned craft.

Screening at Outfest after premiering last month at the Sydney Film Festival, where it picked up the audience award for best narrative feature, the pic is a queer coming-of-age story that plays like a thriller. Sequin — so-named for the bespangled halter-top he wears to assignations — finds himself stalked by a married man whose initial veneer of concern for the boy becomes increasingly threadbare. All the while, the teen searches high and low for a man he hooked up with at the group-sex party of the film’s title. Gregg Araki is a tacit influence, but what distinguishes Sequin in a Blue Room is its interest in the collision between an older generation of gay men and the one that’s coming of age in 2019.

Given a free rein by his well-meaning but oblivious single father (Jeremy Lindsay Taylor), Sequin spends his days surreptitiously arranging sex via app under the school desk. These conversations play out over the big screen courtesy of motion graphics artist Chris Johns, with a medley of headless torso shots and accompanying disclaimers specifying masc, femme, etc. Once he’s had sex with a new partner, he blocks them and continues scrolling. This plenty contrasts with the pickings at school, where sweetly shy admirers such as Tommy (Simon Croker), who references Brokeback Mountain in class and is gauche enough to invite Sequin to a movie, fail to elicit much excitement.

Tommy certainly can’t compete with the Blue Room, an anonymous sex party to which Sequin is welcomed by host "D" (Damian de Montemas, memorably playing against type). In one long, dazzlingly choreographed sequence, he’s led through an apartment of seemingly boundless dimensions, partitioned by production designer Anna Gardiner with walls of translucent blue sheeting. Behind them, he glimpses a tangle of rutting bodies pushed up against the gauze. Sequin is pursued through this labyrinth by the married 45-year-old "B" (Ed Wightman) he earlier slept with then dropped, but he’s saved by a rendezvous with another, slightly older twink (Samuel Barrie) — on whom he becomes fixated.

Sequin’s desire to discover the man’s identity leads him reluctantly to reconnect with the rough-handed B, and, after a round of one-sided sex, to swipe his phone. But B’s wife keeps calling, and her husband adopts increasingly aggressive tactics to get it back. Van Grinsven and his co-writer Jory Anast convincingly lay out Sequin’s isolation in the aftermath, as well as his discomfort confiding in his decent, perplexed and very hetero father. He sleepwalks through school, where his worldliness separates him from his fellows, and Jay Grant’s largely squared-off cinematography bolds the effect, sticking resolutely to Sequin while his teachers drone on offscreen.  

Appearing in his first feature, the fine-boned Leach is quietly riveting at the film's center. Sequin is hardly a chatterbox, but the actor is wonderfully expressive, capturing both the character’s pouting self-assurance and his ratcheting frazzlement. That desperation culminates with a scene in which Sequin reaches out to his father at the behest of Virginia (Anthony Brandon Wong), the kindly drag queen who takes him in at his lowest ebb. The bridging of the generational divide is even symbolized by the choice of wardrobe, with Leach outfitted by costumer William Tran in a Mardi Gras T-shirt circa 1994 — incidentally the year after Van Grinsven was born.

The director and his editor Tim Guthrie have inserted title cards demarcating the various spaces that Sequin encounters, though they’re hardly necessary. Tech credits are first-rate across the board, with Brent Williams providing an atmospheric soundscape for this particular descent into the underworld, ably balancing menace with a sense of wonder.

Production companies: AFTRS
Cast: Conor Leach, Jeremy Lindsay Taylor, Ed Wightman, Simon Croker, Damian de Montemas, Anthony Brandon Wong, Tsu Shan Chambers, Patrick Cullen, Nancy Denis, Darren Kumar, Simon Elrahi
Director: Samuel Van Grinsven
Screenwriters: Jory Anast, Samuel Van Grinsven
Producer: Sophie Hattch
Cinematographer: Jay Grant
Production designer: Anna Gardiner
Costume designer: William Tran
Editor: Tim Guthrie
Music: Brent Williams
Venue: Outfest Los Angeles

80 minutes