by CHARLIE PURCELL
If someone asked you to describe the archetypal “coming out” movie, how would you answer?
Let’s say there’s a boy in high school. Probably artsy. Let’s say he’s active in the drama club. Maybe he’s a writer. Probably both. He falls in love with a star athlete. Football player, perhaps? Maybe soccer or baseball. The target audience doesn’t care about sports, so this hypothetical movie keeps that stuff to a minimum. The art kid and the jock start a secret relationship, probably ill-fated, but not always. The boys’ judgmental families find out about the love affair (probably through some sort of love note hidden away in their bedrooms). There’s drama and emotional speeches, and no matter how the relationship ends up, our hero is a happier, more confident person because of it.
Let’s face it: you’ve seen this story before. A lot. Heck, I’ve written this story, except my version had demons from Hell in it, so the analogy isn’t perfect. What I’m trying to say is that for years, the “coming out” story has followed a surprisingly narrow formula. There have been exceptions, and the exceptions have become more and more frequent, but the standard has remained unchanged.
Until now, that is. Now, there is no standard.
I believe we’ve come to a tipping point in queer cinema. Not only are more gay movies being made, but more types of gay movies are being made. Not every gay film has to be about the angst of coming out. And the movies that are about the angst of coming out are now free to follow whatever script they want.
I came to this conclusion last week, after watching a double feature of coming out films that showed the stark divide between the old and the new. Both films are less than a year old, but they feel like they came from completely different centuries.
The first film I saw was Holding the Man, an Australian drama that follows every single plot point that I listed in my first paragraph. Artsy boy and jock boy fall in love and have to deal with small-minded family members. Because this is Australia, the jock plays rugby instead of football (“holding the man” is a rugby term), but it’s otherwise the same story we’ve seen before. At least, the first half of the movie follows this template. The second half turns into an AIDS drama, which has its own set of cinematic tropes that we’ve seen again and again. In other words, this brand new movie feels like something straight from the 90s.
Not surprisingly, Holding the Man is based on the memoirs of Tim Conigrave, a gay man who actually lived this story, and who died of AIDS-related complications in the mid-90s. While the movie is new, this story is 20 years old, and no doubt influenced a whole wave of coming out cinema within the last two decades. It’s a good movie, and the acting is oftentimes great, but twenty-first century viewers will be able to recognize every plot point as it happens. The story is from the 90s, and it feels like it.
The second film I saw was 4th Man Out, a more comedic take on the coming out film. Unlike Holding the Man, this story is not based on anything, and though it follows some of the rhythms of the standard coming out template, it consistently feels like a movie for the twenty-first century. Its hero is a twenty-something mechanic who comes out to his three blue collar bros after a long night of bar-hopping. His family and friends struggle with the revelation, but in strikingly modern ways. They help him navigate through Tinder accounts. They work their way through disastrous double dates. There’s the standard coming out scene at the family dinner table, for example, but it ends with physical comedy instead of screaming parents.
4th Man Out may be a funnier movie (no one dies of any horrible diseases), but it still milks some interesting drama out of the situation. What’s so refreshing about the film is that this is twenty-first century drama. I’ll give you an example: the bro-ish friends speak in this frat boy shorthand, and they’re constantly using phrases that many would consider homophobic. Once their best friend comes out, they promise to treat him exactly the same as they always have, but they also have to adapt their speech patterns to this new situation. It’s an interesting problem, and the guys evolve in surprisingly nuanced ways. This is a minor part of the film, but it’s something that represents our current times. I couldn’t imagine a movie from ten years ago (let alone twenty years ago) tackling the same theme in the same way.
Now, I’m not saying 4th Man Out is a better film than Holding the Man. They’re very different films with different tones and goals and ideas. One is all about angst and heartbreak, whereas the other is a smaller, less spectacular story about friendship and platonic relationships. Both succeed in telling the kind of story they want to tell. And both of them are quite good. What I am saying is that Holding the Man feels like a movie from a different time, whereas 4th Man Out feels like a movie for this time. The fact that these two polar opposite movies can tackle the same issue in such different ways—that they can sit side-by-side on your Netflix queue—is something to celebrate.
Charlie Purcell is an American living and working on beautiful Zanzibar Island off the coast of Tanzania. When he’s not swimming or eating too much of the local food, he teaches English and drama at an international school. He’s a movie reviewer for Slickster Magazine, as well as the writer of several young adult adventure stories. For updates on his novels and short stories, visit ThisIsCharliePurcell.blogspot.com.