Ben Bonenfant in Strapped
Is there a more tired, done-to-death gay film genre than the hustler movie? We all know why these characters are so common in gay cinema, but even frequent sex scenes and male nudity can make cliched characters and hackneyed dialogue only marginally more interesting.
But guess what? Apparently, there was one terrific gay hustler story just begging to be told.
But each doesn't just want a specific (and different) sex act from him: they want him to fulfill some unstated purpose or desire in their lives, something he can't quite give them: a Russian immigrant wants the return of a teenage love-gone-bad; the drug-addled party boys mistake him for a long-lost friend; the deeply closeted married guy wants confirmation that he can still be a "real" man; an older, lonely bear wants a taste of his lost youth; and a writer needs inspiration for a script he's writing.
The unnerving intimacy of all this is why the hustler tells each of his "clients" to call him by a different name, why he steals an item from each apartment, and why the one act he steadfastly refuses to do is kiss.
There are so many ways and places this movie could've gone off the rails, but writer-director Joseph Graham (2004's Vanilla) finds the perfect touch, with an especially moving ending that is both unexpected and completely inevitable (and, ironically, is by far the hottest part of the film).
And to the film's credit, the movie usually acknowledges its cliches quickly. The movie even acknowledges its clever central gimmick about a man being lost in an apartment building. "It's an apartment building!" one character says
of the hustler's inability to find the doorway out. "It's not purgatory."
But it clearly is a sort of a purgatory for this character. There's no way out of this labyrinth (which is different from a "maze," we're told, because a labyrinth is leading somewhere specific) until the hustler solves the riddle inside his own head.
What else did the director do right? So often micro-budgeted gay indie movies feel claustrophobic, clearly shot in a few limited, indoor locations (where the sound is better), in the front rooms of the director and his best friends.
But here, since the character (and the viewer) are supposed to be trapped, the writer-director is taking full advantage of the claustrophobic feel. It totally works.
Meanwhile, Ben Bonenfant is simply terrific as the lead. He's neither written nor acted like the usual gay movie hustler: either sober and monotone or cool and arrogant, not to mention completely dead behind-the-eyes regardless. Instead, this hustler is actually pretty easy-going and likable, if a little clueless. This makes his search for genuine intimacy much more of one we can all relate too. (And frankly? It seems more realistic. I have no first-hand experience with this, but I refuse to believe that real-life gay hustlers are anything like the movie cliches.)
We all know why they make so many movies about gay hustlers: because the promise of sex and nudity will attract the interest of always-horny gay movie-viewers. (And for the record, straight movie-goers are absolutely no better in this regard: how many films are there about female prostitutes?)
Still, if you're like me, you've long since learned that the subject matter alone does not a good movie make. In fact, it's obviously become a crutch for gay filmmakers, a way to attract attention even to sub-par works. And so, after being burned by so many such movies before, now you might even be like me in that when you see the words "gay hustler" in a movie synopsis, you run fleeing from the Netflix queue or DVD player.
Well, cheer up. This one's different: it's a gem.