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Guest Writer

A subtler approach would have worked better
'Latter Days'
by Amy Nuttbrock

hristian is a breezy West Hollywood tramp with a tight, nylon-clad ass and a mouthful of spry, campy wise-cracks. He leans over the bar of a fashionable L.A. restaurant with a complete set of queer-cinema companions: catty, HIV-positive queen; dishy, ponytailed showbiz hopeful; bisexual, rock-star-aspiring fag-hag; and a wise but timelessly sexy pseudo fairy godmother.

As Christian updates his pals on the group of Mormon missionaries who have moved into his apartment complex – notably a shy, sweet-faced blonde – one friend elbows the group: "Please, not another episode of 'Christian Hooks Up.'"

Fifteen minutes into the film and this was my sentiment exactly.

"Latter Days" is a timely romantic fantasy with big ambitions. Writer-director C. Jay Cox ("Sweet Home Alabama") details the sexy love affair between an unlikely pair of boyish hunks, then weighs it down with homophobic rants, plot clichés and dull stereotypes. We know the gist of the story before heading to the theater, but we're drawn to the film's generic-but-affirmative anthem: Love will prevail if you have the courage to be yourself.

This time the formula is set to the cheerful tune of gay tolerance.

Christian is played by Wes Ramsey from "The Guiding Light," and it seems he's not strayed far from daytime dramatism. Once a bet is wagered and Christian attempts to seduce the sexually inexperienced elder Aaron Davis (Steve Sandvoss), the film proceeds to wink and nudge us over every cliché available to queer cinema.

The plot is too easy and the characters are mostly static, one-dimensional stand-ins who move across the screen like paper dolls. In a nod toward the opposites-attract overture, we see the two in a laundry room, bantering over the pros and cons of mixing white and colored loads.

When Christian scrapes his well-toned flank on a garden appliance, his whimpering and fainting is conveniently met with a Band-Aid and Aaron's solicitous concern. If this weren't implausible enough, Christian discards his damsel-in-distress routine and strips down to his underwear to catch Aaron's sexually charged gaze.

But love isn't easily won. Aaron accuses Christian of being a promiscuous, superficial brat. "I don't want my first time not to mean anything," he says, plaintively.

The message is clear: Love is holier than sex.

Christian is startled enough by the accusation to join a charitable AIDS organization. After a few shifts of delivering lunch entrees to a funereal AIDS sufferer (Eric Palladino), our protagonist is moved to become a deeper and more sensitive human being.

The film departs from bouncy, romantic comedy to wide-gestured polemic, when Aaron's Mission companions catch him during his first kiss with Christian. He's immediately sent home to disgraced parents and a church tribunal that suggests a basement cult meeting.

The story tumbles into a Phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes parody, complete with a suicide attempt and a choppy sequence of LDS-approved electroaversion therapy. While this material might be close to Cox (who is also gay and raised Mormon), his method of consciousness-raising sometimes alienates, where a subtler approach would have worked better.

"Latter Days," however, does have its moments.

It's refreshing to see a film willing to address (albeit insouciantly) the plethora of hopes and concerns regarding the modern gay experience. We should all hope to be so broad-minded. Some of the performances are heartfelt.

Newcomer Steve Sandvoss plays his character as sensitively and complexly as the script allows. He has a sweet, droopy lower lip and a philosophical bent that makes his metamorphosis an enjoyable ride. Some of the better scenes show him staring at fixed points while ruminating about the universe. "From God's perspective," he muses, "we're all connected and it's beautiful and funny and good."

Mary Kay Place is convincing as Aaron's shrill, diatribe-pitching mom, desperately trying to come to terms with her son's homosexuality. It's also refreshing to see Jacqueline Bissett doing her amused deadpan act. As the advice-giving restaurant owner, she offers a few moments of earthy respite from the film's fervid energy.

I wanted this film to work. It deserves to work. Media visibility for gays and lesbians continues to escalate with TV shows like "Queer as Folk" and "The L Word." The American public is slowly getting used to it.

But Cox insists on pitching us the same bland, formulaic gaysploitation techniques made famous in "La Cage Aux Folles." There are so many wonderful gay stories to tell; why does nearly everything that hits the American big screen have to be a tired, assembly-line coming-out story?

I felt like I'd seen this movie a dozen times before, only with more turgor and a lot less schlock.

("Latter Days" is showing at Portland's Cinema 21 through May 6.)

E-mail Amy at amynuttbrock@hotmail, and see more of her work in our archives.

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