Directed by Allan Brocka
based on the novel by Matthew Rettenmund
Released January 31, 2007
88 min. • Find on imdb
Review by Stephen O. Murray
Boy Culture is the rare instance that I think the movie is better than the book that is based on, even though I enjoyed the book. What I liked most about Matthew Rettenmund’s novel was the voice of the narrator who calls himself X, a pricey male prostitute with twelve regular clients or “apostles.”
No, this is not a prostitute with “a heart of gold,” or one who spends all his earnings. He has a heart, but it is very shielded. Clients may fall in love with him, but it’s entirely business to him, and he is excited by being paid, not by sex with any of his clients.
Among the many stories of his career from the novel, three are the focus (and elaborated upon) in the movie: one client whom X comes to trust (after hours of being paid to converse rather than to have sex) and his two roommates.
If there’s an old story here, it’s A loves B, B loves X, X loves W—with the twist that W not only loves X but is actively wooing him—within the household of a gay nuclear family.
There’s no need to define A in this love equation. B is Joey, a brash 18-year-old enthusiastically exploring the sex-and-drug urban gay fast lane. W is a muscular young black man named Andrew who moved from Portland after breaking off an engagement of several years to the sister of the man he loved there. X, who is very disapproving of recreational sex and has none of it himself—at least none involving another person—admires Andrew’s restraint and finds Andrew very attractive. X fights this attraction and Andrew’s evident desire for him.
The novel was set in Chicago, but the movie is set and was filmed in Seattle, where director Q. Allan Brocka (director of Eating Out and nephew of Macho Dancer director Lino) grew up. In the book, Andrew was a corn-fed Ohio hunk. Making him a black character was an inspired touch—as was casting Daryll Stephens. (I have been a fan of Stephens since he was a Berkeley student featured in various Sassymouth productions of John Fisher plays, and wish that there had been a third season of Noah’s Arc, in which Stephens played the flamboyant Noah.)
Andrew asks X to accompany him to the wedding of Andrew’s former fiancée, and X accepts the invitation (with considerable misgivings). Meeting the black middle-class family members who believe that X is more than Andrew’s “room-partner” is very entertaining, as is the wedding reception.
Back at the chaste relationship with the client whom X comes to trust. This, too, improves on the novel. In the book, X is very affronted to learn that Gregory (the client who has not left his penthouse apartment in eight years) has been confiding a life history that is not exactly a true story. X’s reaction in the movie is more convincing to me. It’s difficult not to believe anything that Patrick Bauchau (the veteran of Rohmer and the mentor on the TV show Pretender) says. If what he says didn’t happen, it should have happened the way he tells it.
I’m happy that Stephens got the chance to play a more grounded and less flamboyant character than Noah (though I enjoyed his romantic but fey Noah, too). Without being at all effeminate, Andrew is the mother in the gay family under X’s roof. Andrew pays rent, though perhaps not full market price. Joey pays no rent and is the child in need of parental guidance, which Andrew and X attempt to provide. X is the main bread-winner and the stern substitute parent.
Being an urban gay family, there are overt sexual attractions, not unconscious Oedipal ones. Joey wants X to be his husband rather than his father, while X wants Andrew without being able to admit it, and Andrew is forthright that he wants X. Plus Joey plays Cupid to get his surrogate parents solidly together.
Jonathon Trent is completely convincing as Joey. All four of the main characters are nuanced. That Trent is straight offscreen is surprising, more so than that Derek Magyar, who plays X— is, since X rigorously suppresses his feelings and is stoic in not revealing what bothers him. There’s none of the “watch me act” display that made William Hurt so annoying to me in The Kiss of the Spider Woman (or the travesties of gay characters Richard Burton and Rex Harrison delivered in Staircase—or Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellan in Vicious).
As I wrote, what I liked best about the book was X’s voice. The movie retains this with extensive voice-overs. So much telling bothers some, though I think that the disjunction between what X shows (a mask of smug invulnerability) and what he feels (vulnerable, conflicted and self-critical) requires the voiceovers. I realize that having lots of experience with noirs that have voice-over narration (sometimes by dead characters, as also in American Beauty) and with memoir movies with voice-overs, I am readier than some to relax and listen to an analytic voice.
Also, it is justified in the last scene, part of an ending that is clever and completely satisfying.
Playing nuanced gay characters vs. “playing gay”
The DVD has lengthy (and I have to say somewhat repetitious) interviews with director Brocka and with each of the four stars (plus the Q&A following the US premiere of the film at the Tribeca Film Festival)—which is where I learned that Trent and Magyar are straight actors (and, less surprisingly, that Bauchau did not aim to “play gay”). I like to look at Darryl Stephens, so started with his. That he is articulate and insightful was no surprise. Magyar has some of X’s intensity. Trent is the one of the four least like his character. And Brocka, besides also being insightful and articulate and being the one who could talk about making the character of Andrew black and shooting the film in his home town, appears handsome enough to be on the other side of the camera not just in interviews.
I think that the interviews overlap (in questions and information) too much, but, on the other hand, probably most of those who view any of them will choose one (I only watched three of the five immediately after watching the movie, and went back to watch the other two the next day.)
The DVD also has a trailer for Boy Culture and for three other TLA releases, including Another Gay Movie in which Stephens plays a subsidiary role.
©2007, 2016 by Stephen O. Murray
originally published 17 August 2007 on epinions