Akron (King & O’Donnell, 2015)

Benny (Matthew Frias), is a college student living the kind of charmed, fairy-tale existence that one imagines only places like Akron, Ohio afford to Hispanic gay kids. His little sister adores and looks up to him. His dad takes him aside before Spring Break to give him a box condoms and a go-get-em-sport speech. His mom, Lenora (Andrea Burns), rounds out the trifecta of unconcerned family cheerleaders. When Benny is tackled by hunky Christopher (Edmund Donovan) while playing intramural football, his budding infatuation is neither misconstrued nor rebuffed. Ah, those good old days (of 2015) when being young, gay, and Mexican in Ohio was a blissful, uncomplicated affair.

I’m speaking tongue-in-cheek, obviously. There are, I’m sure, plenty of unrepressed gay collegians in every state of the union. And there are certainly more than enough movies about the perils and problems of gay men rejected by their families and communities to make a few stories about those who are not feel a bit overdue. In that sense, I welcomed rather than resented Akron‘s (perhaps) overly idealized set up.

After the set up, the last hour turns into a Lifetime movie. A prologue seen shows young Benny at the store with his mother. Benny’s brother is about to get killed in a car accident, and since the scene is (curiously) shot from the point-of-view of the young boy who is the son of the driver, there’s never really any doubt as to what the prologue’s connection will be to the rest of the movie. Yes, Christopher is the son of the woman who killed Benny’s brother! And while accepting their respective sons’ gayness proves no problem for either mom, accepting their choice of partner is more painful and problematic.

The best and worst thing about the movie is that you could probably change Benny and Christopher to a heterosexual couple and not have to change a single line of the screenplay.

That’s a good thing because it underscores the fact that Akron is a movie with gay characters that is ultimately about something other than (or more than) their sexual orientation. The world probably needs more of those.

The downside is that the movie feels a bit affected in order to ensure that we get that point. For better or worse (and I imagine its usually for worse) being young and gay in America is different from being young and heterosexual.

If Benny were dating a college girl, would we be quite as approving of dad’s condom gift and encouragement? Or is it only ever okay for parents (and viewers) to discourage rushing into sexual activity pre-marriage when there is no chance of that discouragement being read as homophobia? Religion is mostly not referenced in the film, but most studies I’ve seen cited state 70-80% of Hispanics identify as Christian. So while the fact that neither of Benny’s parents has problems with his sexual orientation is not entirely implausible, it seems like a rare enough occurrence to warrant some sort of backstory or explanation.

In a similar vein, a family that has worked through the eldest son’s death and come to terms with the surviving son’s sexual orientation must have some sort of coping skills. (One bereavement study shows that parents who lose a child divorce at eight times the average/normal rate.) Again, while it is not totally implausible that a family could be emotionally stable and mutually supportive in some areas and have emotional baggage or triggers that sabotage relationships in others, the ease with which Benny’s parents (particularly his mom) shift their attitudes and behaviors depending on the needs of the screenplay to move in and out of the conflict/resolution stage struck me, charitably, as a lack of Aristotelian character unity.

Consistency and depth of character is ultimately a writing issue. If I’m honest, it was one I was willing to forgive because I was down with what I perceived to be the cultural work being attempted. In a week in which The Space Between Us is likely to be #1 at The Box Office, one is reminded that the bar for melodramas about keeping young lovers apart for melodramatic and implausible reasons is not exactly high.

There are also a few weird line deliveries here for which I wasn’t sure if I should blame the actors or the direction. The pace of dialog is slow and there are pauses…….at weird points. Like it wasn’t always…….rehearsed and………fluid. (The scene where Christopher tells his mother that she can’t stand to see him happy would be an example of one that either needed a rewrite or a couple more takes.)

And yet…nit, nit, nit, pick, pick, pick.

If you are looking for the breakthrough gay movie that’s going to win over straight America, accurately represent all facets (including contradictory ones) of the gay experience, and be entertaining, good luck with that. If you are just looking for a movie about two young people (who happen to be gay) in love trying to make a life for themselves while staying connected to the other people in their lives, Akron is just fine.

 

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