Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Skinny

Writes Armond White: The title of The Skinny refers to gossip–the low-down between friends–but read another way (in the credit sequence’s colorful graphics) it also refers to sexual opportunities in New York City. Writer-director Patrik-Ian Polk is interested in the erotic possibilities found by five young black gays, recent Brown University graduates, who reunite during New York’s Pride Week celebrations. Gorgeous, young, educated black gays like these don’t appear in movies by Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes nor in mainstream Hollywood films. They hail from a society that only Polk puts on screen–a world recognizably his own vision like Wes Anderson’s and equally as affecting.

By placing them in New York, Polk gives his characters a cultural coming-out (in the debutante sense) which also means advancing upon the bourgeois mainstream already so well represented by media-empowered white gays that these characters seem new–in fact, almost alien to the New York Times whose dismissive review linked Polk‘s characters to “an invisible demographic.” Nothing could be more clueless–or so tragically revealing of mainstream media’s self-important blindness.

Fact is, as Polk casts and photographs his characters, they are visualized quite handsomely. Joey‘s joking lament “Who knew an Ivy League degree in semiotics would be so useful!” turns out to perfectly define the film’s success. These good-looking black folk are living signs–of black, gay social progress and arrival–although the mainstream media might label them “minorities”.

Magnus (Jussie Smollett, a Prince-look-alike but with dimples) breaks up with his thug-hot boyfriend Ryan (Dustin Ross), while virginal Sebastian (Blake Young-Fountain) hankers after his studly best friend Kyle (Anthony Burrell). Beautiful British dyke Langston (Shanika Warren-Markland) and the elegantly masculine Southern queen Joey (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) watch from the sides, nervous about making their own hook-ups. This group resembles the ensemble of Polk’s trailblazing LOGO-TV series Noah’s Arc, but he’s refined the stereotypes into more subtly-performed archetypes. These actors represent the range of urban black males less realistically than were the women in Pariah but more idealistically, like the co-eds in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress. Their rom-com search for love is also a quest for self-acceptance (infatuated Magnus opens the film kissing and grinning with emotional satisfaction) despite New York pressures of class, disease and insecurity that keep them from being carefree.

The film was written and directed by Patrik-Ian Polk, who endeared himself to this largely invisible demographic with the Logo television series “Noah’s Arc,” a relationships-in-the-city show centered on four gay, black characters. In “The Skinny,” though, he uses the trappings of soft-core pornography to dress up awkward messages about sexual responsibility and abiding friendship, with uneven results.

The friends — four men and one woman — are Brown University alumni who a year after graduating are reuniting in New York during Gay Pride Week. Their version of catching up consists disproportionately of talking about and looking for sex, so the characters end up being defined largely by their promiscuity level, perhaps not the best stereotype to reinforce. The gamut is represented, from the wanton Kyle (Anthony Burrell) to the innocent Sebastian (Blake Young-Fountain).

The profusion of characters and subplots proves overwhelming at times, with writer/director (and virtually everything else on the film) Polk apparently not terribly interested in keeping up the pace. He does, however, seem intent on providing a primer on virtually every aspect of being gay, including detailed discussions about such issues as sexual violence, sexually transmitted diseases, and picking the right condom size. There’s also no shortage of torrid encounters featuring the hunky, frequently unclothed actors.
On the plus side, the irreverently graphic dialogue is frequently amusing (during a pilgrimage to author Langston Hughes’ townhouse, one character remarks, “Can you imagine all the dick he must have gotten up here in Harlem?”), the large ensemble deliver mainly endearing performances and the tech elements are solid despite the obvious budget.

The Skinny is a great film that does, upon occasion, creeps into TMI territory. But remember, Patrik did make this film to celebrate and educate about the experience of being a Black gay men. For the rest of us, Polk crafts a beautifully shot film, which is both hilarious and poignant, with a centerpiece message being the power of love, acceptance and enduring friendships. Look for cameo appearances from Polk project alums Wilson Cruz and Darryl Stephens.

The film begins with all actors arriving in New York City to stay with Smollett's character, Magnus. In the beginning we understand that since graduation, these friends have come to live in very different places around the world. Polk paints the characters as truly dynamic individuals who are very different from characters we have seen in previous works, and through this he helps cultivate a cinematic environment that is ripe for hard topics and tough decisions that are relevant in all black, gay, and black/gay communities. As the movie progresses, we are given intimate looks into the dynamics of this long friendship between five people, and how their Pride weekend unravels in the backdrop of New York City -- of course giving us some steamy scenes that I am sure will keep this film rated R, at least.

To avoid giving anything away, I will only slightly discuss a pinnacle moment in the film that deals with an HIV scare and a sexual assault after a character takes Ecstasy for the first time. This HIV scare happens through circumstances that will make your stomach turn and could very well be triggering to many, but it is something that happens, and many are afraid to talk about it. I truly applaud Polk for writing this topic into his script. This instance deals with sexual violence, HIV, and friendship in a way that is real and understanding of the complexities around these issues, acknowledging that sexual assault is not always black-and-white but sits in a gray area that makes one uncomfortable. This pinnacle point will make many people uncomfortable, and will spark many debates in communities around consent and drug use, but it is important because it will connect with many gay men, black or of any other race. Drug use, HIV, and consent during sex are real issues that are kept under the rug in our community, and Polk is pulling up that rug, giving us a space to take notice and begin to do work.

In the end, The Skinny will leave the viewer with that satisfaction that we all desire at the end of films. However, don't get me wrong: there were moments in the film where I turned in my seat and had to shake my head, but that may be revealing too much, so the best advice is to see the film. Polk is part of a very small minority of black gay filmmakers in the world who are really pushing the envelope and creating projects that are not only progressive but gaining lots of attention. The Skinny is a film that is not skinny in substance or importance: it pushes at our waistlines and fills our minds with more questions to ask and lives to consider. It is a film about who is around you and how they care about you. Because that is what friendship is about: caring for one another.

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