Charlie doesn’t know why, but he’s reminded of the parable of a wealthy man who owned a cherished turtle. The man loved his turtle so much he adorned its shell in expensive jewels. Though beautiful, the weight of the gemstones slowly crushed the turtle to death, “and it wasn’t his fault,” Charlie explains to his classmates at a New York university for fine arts.
As Those People progresses, we learn the turtle mirrors the life of Charlie’s best friend Sebastian, gay son to a recently-sentenced millionaire convicted of Madoff-esque investment fraud. The scandal has frozen Sebastian’s income, and the fine-featured Mercurial heir is now hounded by Manhattan paparazzi and crippling shame.
Writer and director Joey Kuhn slowly unveils the relationship between these childhood best friends with expert pacing, revealing the past between them, their deepest desires, and the unspoken fears that prevent them from fulfilling their drive to complete themselves. Charlie, played by Jonathan Gordon, is a kindhearted young painter on the precipice of his fine arts thesis; a devoted friend and chronically single. Jason Ralph’s Sebastian is depicted as a spoiled beauty whose wealth or reputation were his North Star, now fading from a charismatic socialite life to a champagne-induced stupor alone in a black marble bathroom. The film’s torrent picks up quickly when Charlie begins dating Tim (solidly rendered by Haaz Sleiman), a charming and aggressive concert pianist. Loyalties are challenged, intentions are cast into doubt, and truths exposed as Charlie and Sebastian grapple with how to love and accept each other—and themselves—as adults. Sebastian calls this conflict to light with his heartbreaking admission, “When you don’t love me anymore, you’ll realize what a terrible person I am.”
Though a low-budget student film, Those People looks and feels like an expensive work of art. Brilliantly tailored costumes and classical European set deco bring Sebastian’s waspy affluence to life while its whimsical Gilbert and Sullivan soundtrack and warm 1970’s camera lenses parallel the fondness with which Charlie approaches his friendships. Filmed over 3 weeks in New York, the New England autumn-turned-winter lends itself to the frosting relationships between the characters involved. The direction was overly dramatic in parts, but the cast’s commitments to challenging emotions polished those otherwise rough edges.
Is the film brilliant because of the impressive cast performances? The script that carries the story forward, punctuated with several soul-touching lines that command attention? The tenderly honest love scenes and the characters’ relatable, frustrating father dynamics? While these were all incredible facets of Those People, the film is truly brilliant for another unique factor: this was not a coming out story.
Gay American cinema is not famous for its high-budget productions, A-list casts, or award-winning scripts. The genre tends to garner a modest viewership with its amateur performances and sex-focused storytelling. (Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Wolfe Video films from time to time, too.) But the genre is also back-heavy with coming of age dramas, coming out narratives, or AIDS histories. These are all vital stories that must be told, but Those People positions itself in the vanguard of the new LGBT film wave as an instant classic about loyalty, forgiveness, self-nurturing, and accepting love even when you don’t feel you deserve it.
Those People is playing in this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, with its last showing on Saturday June 6th at 11am, at the Harvard Exit Theatre. Get tickets HERE!
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