'Straight Up': Film Review | Outfest 2019
Multihyphenate James Sweeney's feature debut is an amusingly prickly and personal ambi/asexual rom-com.
Todd (James Sweeney) is trapped in a box. Literally, if you consider that Sweeney, who also wrote, directed and produced the rapid-fire queer (or am I?) dramedy Straight Up, constricts his characters to a 4:3 frame familiar from many a Golden Age Hollywood rom-com. Performance anxiety is prevalent. You get the sense that the twenty-something, OCD-afflicted Todd speaks so rat-a-tat because to slow down would mean certain death, or at least the need to deal with a highly shambolic reality.
Todd's truth is that he doubts he's the gay man he thought he was. Years of failed dating, and a disgust/fear of the bodily excretion that is the primary ingredient in a Dirty Sanchez, have brought him to this point. Clearly, as he tells both his sarcasm-prone therapist (Tracie Thoms) and his befuddled friend group, he must be straight. That in itself is another deflection, though it will take a feature film's length of time to identify the real culprit. (Hint: It's the L-word — not that one.) Until then, he'll work through his hang-ups with struggling actress Rory (Katie Findlay), with whom he meets-cute in a library and who proves to be in almost every way his soul mate.
She's the Hepburn to his Tracy (don't you doubt that Katharine and Spencer get name-checked). And the duo grow closer as they play house in the sunlit California residences that they look after to make ends meet. The pair heatedly dissect Alanis Morissette's "Ironic" and participate in an uncomfortable "Truth or Dare" evening. They even go to a party dressed as Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman in the movie version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which begets an exegesis on the sublimated homosexuality of Newman's injured character Britt.
The trans-generational citations come fast and furious, never lingered on for more than a sharply inhaled breath. Both Sweeney and Findlay are more than up to the task of playing arrested millennials dancing around their problems, forever walking a fine line between charm and aggravation. And Sweeney as filmmaker effectively goes the Wes Anderson route of letting emotion bust through all the aesthetic archness at key moments.
This is most moving in a sequence in which Todd takes Rory home to meet the folks. Mom (Betsy Brandt) and Dad (Randall Park) speak just as pointedly as their progeny, though their views on life, the universe and everything are slightly more weathered and antiquated, if still delivered at Autobahn momentum. Then the scene closes with a genuinely tender interaction between father and son, one that comes out of nowhere and yet feels, in this context, like a necessary reaction against and counterweight to the impish world Sweeney has created.
We often make our own psychological prisons, and Straight Up is a droll embodiment of its protagonist's (and perhaps its maker's?) inner turmoil. Todd's sexual proclivities aren't fully on one side or the other of the Kinsey scale. Maybe he has none at all (that's fine, too!). He uses his acid wit to stave off life, and the degree to which Rory does the same gives them both a foundation for a beautiful friend(and-maybe-more)ship. But should there be more?
The film ultimately retreats into the bubble it creates. Rom-coms historically tend toward fantasy and idealization, though the best of them suggest a fervent way forward for the couples under consideration, a delirious casting off into uncharted waters that is for the characters alone to experience. The closing scenes of Straight Up are more contrived and constrained — an acquiescence to living inside the box, with one dramatic wrinkle that feels tacked on and ill-considered. The fiery talent that Sweeney displays throughout, both in front of and behind the camera, regrettably ends up ashen.
Production company: Valparaiso Pictures
Cast: Katie Findlay, James Sweeney, Dana Drori, James Scully, Tracie Thoms, Betsy Brandt, Randall Park
Writer-director: James Sweeney
Producers: David Carrico, Ross Putman, James Sweeney
Executive producer: Bobby Hoppey
Co-producer: Jerry TerHorst
Cinematographer: Greg Cotten
Production designer: Tye Whipple
Editor: Keith Funkhouser
Composer: Logan Nelson
Music supervisor: Lauren Fay Levy
Costume designer: Neesa Martin
Casting director: Jessica Munks
Venue: Outfest Los Angeles