Book #136: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999)

author: Stephen Chbosky
language: English
length: 213 pages
finished reading on: 12 May 2017

I like it when I find a book that’s just nicely-presented, which is the main reason I bought this novel, if I’m honest. Usually I avoid the ones with movie tie-in covers, but the paper and layout of this novel is very good quality. So I actually feel like I’m getting better quality than I would if I bought the Kindle version.

I watched the movie version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower a few years ago – there are a lot of things I’d forgotten about the movie, but I kept remembering moments as I read through this. The movie is pretty faithful to the book, and it’s directed by the book’s author, which is pretty rare. One thing I’d forgotten is that the movie awkwardly tries to keep the conceit that the main character is writing letters to an unnamed stranger – the so-called epistolary style – by having him type the letters out on screen. It doesn’t work on screen, and I was a bit skeptical about the book when I first picked it up, but I found it works quite well.

It’s very easy to read, especially after the last book I read, which had quite thick and heavy prose. This is written in a more colloquial style and is often speaking directly at the reader. That and the shorter length of the book meant that I finished it much quicker.

I think it’s refreshing to have a young male character who’s unashamed of being emotional and upset – so much media, even modern media, still stereotypes men as being unable to express their emotions. And this tackles quite a lot of mental health issues directly, which is also good. I don’t have a lot to criticize about the book – perhaps that the main character is self-centred despite trying hard to be a “wallflower”, and annoyingly clueless at times. But I also recognized that awkwardness I and a lot of others I know have experienced in our high school days.

And there’s the ending twist, too, which I’d completely forgotten – it comes on the second-to-last page in the book. I don’t want to reveal it – I think the book is easy enough for people to read and I really liked it, so I think people should seek this book out. Perhaps it’s a bit young for me, really – the issues are distinctly teenage, after all, and I’m well past that stage of my life – but I still enjoyed reading it a lot. (And one of the side characters is gay. Also good.)

Book #130: Openly Straight (2013)

author: Bill Konigsberg
language: English
length: 339 pages
finished reading on: 6 Mar 2017

It remains the case, at least from what I can see, that it’s easier to find young adult LGBT novels than it is to find more grown-up stuff. Perhaps my readers have a different perspective? Let me know if you know anything good! Anyway, for me this follows on from similar books like Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, which I read last year. It’s similarly easy to read, and the story is also generally optimistic.

The conceit here is a boy called Rafe who is openly gay, but tired of being The Gay Kid at his school, and wants to be treated “normally”. So he ups and moves right across the country to attend boarding school in Massachusetts, where he decides he’s not going to reveal his sexuality straight away – going back in the closet, as his best friend and family term it.

The arc of the story is very predictable – I could tell what was going to happen within the first two chapters, as all the main characters are introduced. But this predictability is a boon in this genre, actually. It’s comforting to be able to know what will happen next.

The exploration of identity is interesting, but I’m definitely out of the target audience of teenagers still trying to work this stuff out. But I could see parts of myself in it too. I was never “out” in high school, but I would never have wanted to be seen as The Gay Kid. I’m reminded of something my coworker said recently – being gay is important to me but it’s not my primary identity, nor the first adjective he’d describe me with. His impression was that Americans seem to be more eager to make it the centre of their identities, and if I was American I might want to be seen as That Gay Guy.

Not sure about that, but that idea is reflected to some extent here – the other characters are shocked when they find out the main character is tired of broadcasting his identity in such a way, and it looks into the labels we apply to each other. Once he stops broadcasting that he’s gay, he immediately picks up other labels, such as “jock”. And it’s more subtle, but names, too, are very important in the book – the main character goes by different names to different people, and his friend gets angry when people call her the wrong name. I think this was a sensible choice from the author to demonstrate other shifts in identity that everyone makes.

I’m not so into many sports myself, and sports are also a big theme of the book – so I switched off a bit for the descriptions of soccer or American football, but I liked the bits where they went skiing. Selective, perhaps.

It gets very, very awkward at some points, though, in that way of teenagers unable to express their feelings well. Similar to Boys, the last movie I watched, it reminded me in a bad way of the anxiety of coming out.

So while I enjoyed its exploration of the character’s identity, and in general I found it easy to read and enjoyed the variety of characters and situations, I still think I need to get away from stories of coming out and coming of age.

And thus I reiterate my initial request – does anyone know any gay novels that aren’t about coming of age?

Film #270-271: Boys (2014) + bonus short film

aka: Jongens
director: Mischa Kamp
language: Dutch and a bit of English
length: 76 minutes
watched on: 3 Mar 2017

I’ve been seeing pictures and gifs of this movie online for a while, and it looked good. It’s yet another gay coming-of-age movie. You’d think I’d have had enough of them by now, but I don’t get a whole lot of choice in the genre. Anyway, I bought it on DVD when I was back home.

This movie is basically harmless, and it can be fairly described as “nice” for most of its runtime. It tells the story of two teenage boys on the running team in a rural Dutch school who fall in love. Meanwhile, the main character, in deep denial, also gets a kind-of girlfriend to fit in with his best friend and his brother. Unlike his romance with the other boy, which develops slowly and naturally, this seems forced and rushed. Towards the end it comes down to a choice between the two.

The film has a good visual style. It’s clean and uses contrast and symmetry well. I noticed this watching it, and then the director said that’s what she was trying to achieve in the DVD extras – they wanted something that would be iconic enough that individual frames could be screenshotted easily.

The other important thing about the movie is that I think it’s the first “PG” rated gay film I’ve ever seen – and this was also very deliberate on the part of the director, as her target audience was young people just figuring out their sexual orientation. In terms of sexual content, it goes as far as kissing and making out, but not further. I guess some of the homoerotic exercise shots reminded me of Bavo Defurne’s work, which I watched last year, but they were also pretty tame.

Overall, I liked the visual style of the movie, but as I say, I need to take a break from movies about coming out. I think on the same day I watched this, I read That Article that’s been circulating about how gay men are all lonely and emotionally stunted from the experience of being in the closet (I partially agree with it, but it’s a very pessimistic article and has some faulty arguments/conclusions without advice on how to break such a cycle), and watching this film, about being in the closet and figuring oneself out, didn’t help my anxious feeling that day. Still, I’d recommend the movie, it’s basically harmless and optimistic, and feels really genuine and warm-hearted.

The DVD also came with a bonus short film:
Film #271: Even Cowboys Get to Cry (2013)
aka: Cowboys janken ook
director: Mees Peijnenberg
language: Dutch and a bit of French
length: 25 minutes

So I just waxed lyrical a bit about the importance of having a PG-rated gay movie… and the distributors kind of ruined that by packaging it with this 18-rated short, meaning that young teenagers trying to figure out their sexuality can’t even buy this movie legally in the UK. Like, this doesn’t concern me a lot personally, but it’s annoying. I can see why they added it, though – the main feature is a bit shorter than usual at 76 minutes.

The movie is connected to the other by dint of sharing two main actors – in Boys, they are the boyfriend and brother of the main character, here they are best friends and troublemakers. They have a “bromance” going on at the start of the movie and there are some scenes showing how close they are. But then, one of them starts a fight after drinking, and the other gets in a coma as a result of the ensuing violence. The rest of the movie is his rehabilitation and the first boy’s guilt – they sort of drift apart and reconcile at the end.

It’s not gay like the other movie, actually, although it’s very easy to read subtext into it. And the sexual content that gets it an 18 rating is pretty superfluous – firstly, there is a scene where one boy walks in on the other while he’s having sex with a girl, meant to show how they are inappropriately close, and the other is in the hospital, when we accidentally see his erect penis. I think these scenes are meant to titillate, and I think they could easily be extracted from the film.

A bit disappointing, but an interesting look at disability and rehabilitation.

Has anyone else seen this/these?

Film #267: Closet Monster (2015)

closet-monsterdirector: Stephen Dunn
language: English
length: 90 minutes
watched on: 9 Feb 2017

This was another big release of last year that I hadn’t seen – it’s been out in some film festivals and on DVD, and like Departure or Being 17, I’d seen a lot of gifs from the movie, or trailers, or whatever. It looked good even before watching it, just based on the visual style.

I didn’t really know what it was about – from the trailer, you can fairly assume it’ll be a gay coming-of-age story, which is true. So I swear blind I’m not seeking out movies where the protagonists have horribly dysfunctional relationships with their parents, or parents going through a divorce, or whatever (this follows pretty soon after Sing Street and Departure). It just keeps happening that way.

This particular protagonist is called Oscar (and his crush in the movie is called Wilder, of all the obvious allusions you could make), and in his childhood (the initial scenes of the movie) he witnesses a brutal homophobic attack, which leaves him pretty traumatized. A large part of the movie is him trying to overcome that trauma later in the movie, when he starts having sexual experiences – and the other part is him trying to distance himself from his parents. He is desperate to get a place in a college as a movie make-up artist, so that he can move out of his deadend middle-of-nowhere hometown (again, very similar to Sing Street). It’s filmed in Newfoundland – I can indeed imagine it must feel very far from anywhere else if you live there.

The director, Stephen Dunn, has been rightly compared to Xavier Dolan (I’ve only seen J’ai tué ma mère, a while ago, but that also has a dysfunctional parent-child relationship) – perhaps mainly because the films explore family relationships, but I imagine it’s also the visual style of the movie, which is frenetic and colourful. I really liked the use of colour in the movie – too many movies that I see these days are drab in comparison. It also has a nice electronic soundtrack, and I just had to find the music online after hearing it in the movie.

The exploration of the boy’s trauma is central to the movie, and I liked how it did this, sliding in and out of Oscar’s imagination. There are a lot of layers to how this is told, too – shifting the focus of blame and attribution a lot between him and the parents. The way it’s done also fits with the dreamy music, and the colourful mise-en-scène.

The relationship with the other boy is also developed naturally, but we’re left wondering how much of that too is in the main character’s imagination. That too doesn’t follow the usual plot trajectory of the standard gay coming-of-age film.

Ultimately, though, it’s the relationship with the parents that is most important in this film – neither of them ultimately come off well out of it. Fortunately, it didn’t feel quite as relevant to my own life as Departure, as there was a lot more emotional abuse going on from all sides. Obviously the father is the major conflict, but the mother often appears dismissive to her son’s interests and needs, and I was annoyed that she didn’t tell her son she loves him.

But despite all the doom and gloom, I think there is an optimistic heart to the film, including various comedic moments throughout. In the ambiguous ending, there is a sense that things are going to get better, despite the bleak setting and all the terrible stuff that happens up until then.

So generally I liked this. The only things I can think to say negatively are that the movie could be a bit over-the-top, too melodramatic at times, or that people interact in scripted and unnatural ways. That said, there are enough moments that struck me as very real, or directly comparable to my own experiences. But thankfully, not the emotional abuse or the visions of violence.

I would recommend this whole-heartedly. I’m glad I’m getting to watch a lot of good movies recently. Has anyone else seen this? I’d be interested to know what you think.

Film #266: All Over Brazil (2003)

alloverbrazildirector: David Andrew Ward
language: English
length: 9 minutes
watched on: 9 Feb 2017
link to the video: https://vimeo.com/1802140

I’ve still got a fairly long list of short films to get through at some point – when trawling for them on the internet, this is one that stood out to me because it’s set in Scotland in the 1970s.

It’s about a kid who likes glam rock and wants to dance around with make-up on (the above image is his fantasy). Of course, his dad, more into football, isn’t OK with this and gets angry. But in the end he lets the kid out with his sister to go see the band he likes, and there’s some kind of reconciliation between them.

Obviously I saw this because it’s gay-interest, and I thought it was a sweet film. It doesn’t really match my experience, though – my parents weren’t like that with me. I daresay my dad would recognize the situation more than me.

I was surprised that the movie was from 2003 – I didn’t realize how much video quality has improved since then. I think this was made for TV (for the BBC), and the quality is accordingly pretty low.

An interesting little snippet or slice of life. What do you think? You can watch it online easily – and tell me what you think.

Film #262: Departure (2015)

departure-2015director: Andrew Steggall
language: English and French
length: 104 minutes
watched on: 20 Jan 2017

I heard about this movie last year, and like a lot of the other movies I’ve reviewed recently, it was one of my eagerly anticipated movies of the last year or two. I’d been waiting for the DVD price to go down a bit – eventually, I bought it when I went back home for New Year this time. As usual, good luck getting it released over here (it can be delivered internationally, though!).

Heaven knows I’ve watched enough gay coming-of-age stories in my life already, but I still fall for it very easily. But watching the trailer I could see a hint of something special there, and I liked the folk music accompaniment. Inadvertently, I’ve also completed a kind of trilogy of gay coming-of-age movies set in the rural south of France, this one following Being 17 and Summertime. In fact, the opening shots of this movie reminded me a lot of the latter film, and the imagery and composition was reminiscent of the former. Seasons are again very important to this film, and it provides the autumn counterpart to winter, spring and summer of the other two movies.

The story is about a mother and son, who go to their creaky old holiday home in the south of France to get ready to sell it. They have to pack up their old life, but neither really wants to. Then the son (Elliot) comes across a French guy (Clément), in that time-honored gay coming-of-age story way by seeing him naked from afar, followed by quickly approaching him and inducting him into the family’s life. Clément also awakens something in the mother, triggering a tense competition between mother and son. Such animosity was already developing between them, but it gets worse over the course of the movie.

Elliot is played by the very cute but very young-looking Alex Lawther, who’s already picked up a couple of accolades for his other work. His character is fundamentally bored, and he’s on the cusp of adulthood – a big theme of the movie is endings, with the autumn setting and the sale of the house, which ties into him leaving behind childhood. He’s got a poetic mind, and already seems to know his sexuality – he proudly announces at one point that all the French writers he knows are gay. He occasionally has fantasies that are reflected in strange magical realism or imaginary moments in the film – one of him as St Sebastian, and another later on with falling leaves indoors.

The mother, Beatrice, is superbly performed by Juliet Stevenson, and perfectly captures the feeling of a woman who feels abandoned by her husband and son, but is trying to put a very middle class brave face on it. She gets upset very easily and is obviously in emotional turmoil. I think she hit me closer to the bone than the other characters, as she reminded me a lot of my own mother in many ways, desperate to rekindle the childhood relationship she had with her son, yet very isolated and going through a lot of emotions all at once.

Ultimately the boy that they end up fighting over is window-dressing – the central conflict is between Elliot and her, him trying to be aloof and not so keen to be treated like a child, and her trying desperately to reconnect with him. Or he’s embarrassed by her in a typical teenager way and shocked that she’s trying to flirt with the French guy too. But we’re reminded at key moments that the French guy has real feelings too – too often they’re ignored by the main characters, causing upset and argument.

The sexual content in the movie weirded me out a bit – while it’s nothing explicit, of course, it’s showing Elliot masturbating off camera, and later finding a carrot as a conveniently-sized vegetable to … use on himself in bed (followed by one of the movie’s more comedic moments when his mother almost catches him and makes an inadvertent innuendo). I couldn’t quite take the movie seriously at these points. They’re important to the movie and its repressed atmosphere, but I just started laughing. I think it’s just because Elliot is still obviously a child, by the way he acts otherwise.

The movie is a lot of melodrama, overall, and there are a lot of overwrought images in it. Sometimes the themes can be shoved in viewers’ faces a little too forcefully – especially the whole theme of endings, constantly reinforced by the autumn imagery. The movie was treading the line between pretension and fine art for quite a lot of the runtime.

So I don’t think it’s a perfect movie by any means, but I was deeply moved by parts of it, I loved the imagery and cinematography, and I’m definitely going to be watching out for those actors again. And I couldn’t get the movie out of my head for a few days. Highly recommended.

Anyone else seen it?

Film #243: Toast (2010)

toastdirector: S.J. Clarkson
language: English
length: 96 minutes
watched on: 9 November 2016

I didn’t know anything about this movie before watching it, except that my boyfriend had recorded it using a DVR device thing and it had a few famous actors in it – Freddie Highmore and Helena Bonham Carter among them. It turns out it’s a TV movie from the BBC and it’s about a famous chef Nigel Slater, who I’ve never heard of. OK, I exaggerate, I think I’ve heard his name a few times, but I certainly know nothing about him.

So I went into the movie knowing nothing about the life and times of the real-life man, nor the book it’s apparently based on, and the whole thing was a pleasant surprise for me.

It starts with the young Nigel, played by Oscar Kennedy, in the picture above, in the 1960s. He’s already obsessed with food and wants to be adventurous in the kitchen and learn how to make nice things, but his mum is unable to cook, and resorts to toast when she can’t cook something properly, hence the title. But she soon passes away from at-the-time-incurable asthma, and after a brief mourning period, his emotionally-distant dad shacks up with the maid, played by Helena Bonham Carter. He doesn’t really connect with his son, and the boy is constantly left in the dark. They move out to the country, which the boy obviously hates, but the dad doesn’t care, and the stepmother sees it as an opportunity to swipe any semblance of control from the boy. Then the boy grows up into Freddie Highmore in his late teens, and it becomes a full-on war between him and the evil stepmother, who’s actually good at cooking, and he feels that she’s stealing his dad from him.

It’s a foodie movie through and through – of course – and food is depicted very lovingly throughout. It’s also highly stylized, and reminded me of the stylized supermarket in High-Rise, still fresh in my mind. The tins of food in the shop at the beginning of the movie especially reminded me of this, stacked in impossibly neat columns. The 60s kids are dressed stereotypically, very prim, and the colour palette of the entire movie uses a lot of green and brown.

It’s also got a gay bent to it, right from the beginning when the ten-year-old Nigel eyes up his hot gardener changing clothes in the shed (it comes across more innocently than I’m describing it, honest!). He also gets bullied in school when he’s older. I didn’t think they’d follow through with it, so I was pleasantly surprised when the older Nigel finally meets a nice young man with whom he shares a kiss in the woods (it’s very PG, though), towards the end of the movie.

Obviously there are questions about the authenticity, as always happens with these types of movies, from the character cast in a conflicting role, in this case Helena Bonham Carter hamming it up as Nigel’s stepmother. Apparently in real life she also had two daughters, who complained about unfair representation. But in the movie there’s a war between her and Nigel for the dad’s heart through food, a stand-in for class conflict as I see it.

For all that, it’s a nice movie to watch, and I enjoyed it a lot. But it has one gaping structural flaw, one weak link, and that is Freddie Highmore. You see, the kid in the picture above, Oscar Kennedy, really carried the whole movie in the first two acts, and his acting skill is really high for someone that young. He is literally the hook that got me interested, as his depiction of the character was really poignant and well-measured. Usually in biopics when you have a kid actor growing up into a more well-known adult actor, the movie doesn’t wait until the third act to make the switch like in this one. Usually the kid does a few establishing scenes and the adult actor puts in the legwork. But here, once we’d spent two thirds of the movie with Kennedy, he suddenly grows up into Highmore. Highmore, by contrast, is completely wooden, and really lends no emotion to key scenes late in the movie. Helena Bonham Carter is left to chew the scenery by herself, trying to make up for Highmore’s emotional void.

So just for that ending, I was a bit disappointed. But I liked many aspects of this production – the visual design, the storyline, the foodie bits, the gay bits. It’s an interesting little movie, and I enjoyed it for what it was.

Book #119: Language Lessons (2011)

langlessonsauthor: Jay Bell
language: English
length: 47 pages
read on: October 31 2016

This was my second foray into the world of free Kindle books after The Metamorphosis, but it’s not out of copyright like that other book – rather it’s a short story that the author decided to release for free. It’s on the Amazon Kindle store if anyone wants to try it.

It’s written by Jay Bell, who also wrote the Something Like Summer series. Like that series, this is also a gay romance story, although it’s not part of the same storyline or anything, like the sequels to that book had been.

The length of the book meant it jumped rather abruptly between sections of the story. It starts with the main character hooking up with a guy across the street, also without much preamble, proceeds to hooking up the other guy with an ex-boyfriend, and then suddenly switches to the main character pursuing a completely new character he’d met in a restaurant, but with an eye to love instead of sex, which is unusual for him.

My main problem was the main character, who is a conceited little shit – he’s 16 and already far more confident than any 16-year-old has any right to be. He’s obsessed with looks, and tries to dress very prim and smart because it gives him an air of masculinity or authority, or something. Several times he’s outright rude to other characters. I wouldn’t like him if I met him in real life. That said, he redeems himself a bit with the second storyline, where his insecurities are more in play. If he’d been around 23 or 24 I’d have bought the character more, but I don’t identify much with characters who are getting a lot of casual sex at 16, as that was never the case for me – I wasn’t even out of the closet at that point.

It’s a fairly simple story, free and short, and on that count I think it was fine. It just wasn’t great.

Film #241: For Dorian (2012)

for-doriandirector: Rodrigo Barriuso
language: English
length: 15 minutes
watched on: 28 October 2016
Boys on Film 11 (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8)

This is one of the more poignant movies on the “Boys on Film 11” series, but it was less explicitly gay than the others, in my opinion. It’s about a boy with Down syndrome (Dorian of the title) and his father. The boy is coming of age and starting to seek his own independence, much to his father’s chagrin.

As far as I can tell, it’s a rare look into the sexuality of a disabled person, and it treats its protagonists with respect. The boy is obviously interested in a hot weatherman, and has a collection of screenshots on his computer. He only talks about the weather to his dad. He also walks arm-in-arm down the street with his best friend from school and it’s sensible to read something more into their friendship.

Dad isn’t having it, though – he chastises the boy’s after-school carer for not bringing him home. He also won’t let the boy cook his own breakfast, even though he’s willing to help, perhaps worried that he’ll mess it up – but he hasn’t had the opportunity to try! He needs to realize that he won’t be responsible forever.

Aside from that, it’s obviously a coming of age story, and fits a few more of those tropes well. Furthermore, I liked the minimalist cinematography and the precise composition of so many shots in the movie. I also thought the setting – Toronto in winter – was evocative, and the scenery was crisp and clean to match the interiors. Out of the eight films on this DVD, I don’t think this was the best, but it’s probably second or third.

Book #117: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (2015)

svhsaauthor: Becky Albertalli
language: English
length: 303 pages
finished on: 27 October 2016

Just like the last book I read, I wanted to finish this one quickly so I could get started on my new Kindle (which I got for my birthday). So I ended up reading the last portion of the book in one sitting.

The book is a “young adult” story about gay teenagers. I’ve mentioned it before, but I don’t think I had access to any such things when I was a teenager… but whether I’d have taken the opportunity at that time is a different story. Being in the closet does that to you. I’m making up for lost time now.

The central character is Simon, who is in the closet, but seems to be comfortable with himself – just not ready to tell the world yet. He’s writing to someone that he met through Tumblr (another modern institution that didn’t exist in the previous decade), who goes to the same school, and trying to work out the other person’s mystery identity. At the same time, a rather despicable boy discovers the emails and blackmails him into trying to hook him up with a girl.

The depiction of the main character is spot on, I think, and his/the author’s sense of humour is well-observed. It captured the awkwardness of teenage years well. I really felt for the characters, despite now being in a stage of life where I’ve largely stopped caring about people’s reactions (ie. I’m not generally scared of coming out anymore).

I did often feel like the main character was being a bit stupid, or thinking the wrong thing. For most of the book, he thinks the mystery emailer is one particular character, and it’s fairly obvious that that’s not the case, and it’s wishful thinking. It’s like a narrative trope, or something. At the same time, the eventual answer to the mystery seems to come out of nowhere – the hints and foreshadowing are there if you know what to look for (the main character smiles at him in a certain way about two thirds of the way through the book, for example), but the character was so minor up to that point it’s a genuine surprise.

I liked it, anyway. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in young adult gay fiction, which is probably not most of my friends, but hey. How about you, the reader? What did you think?