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May 25, 2007

Evenings Out

Growing up

A charming lead makes a predictable film about nearing 30 enjoyable

Gay men have long been accused of succumbing to the Peter Pan complex--the idea that life ends at 25 and the perpetual desire to stay young forever. The psychology behind that sometimes true stereotype is fascinating, and will someday receive a full-blooded treatment in cinema.

But 29th & Gay is not that film. Out on DVD from TLA Releasing, the story does deal with many of the pressures gay men feel to remain young and the dread of turning 30, let alone forty or fifty. It tries to do it with humor and kindness.

James Sanchez, the hero, is refreshing in large part because he is a gay protagonist who is something other than a middle-class white boy. His Hispanic roots, while never fully exploited in the film, are still important. So much of queer cinema, be it about gays, lesbians, bisexuals or even transgendered folk, has been focused largely and almost exclusively on the white members of the community--see TransAmerica, Longtime Companion, and Love! Valour! Compassion! as just a few examples.

James, slightly pudgy but immensely charming and lovable, finds himself on the doorstep of thirty without the perfect body, a stable job and the ideal life mate. Under the assumption that he needs to get it all correct by the time he runs head on into the next decade, Sanchez struggles at every level. He can’t seem to find the confidence or the courage to approach men he finds attractive and desirable, particularly a hunky yet down-to-earth barista he meets at a coffee shop. He seems stuck in his job as a tour guide at a theme park, parlaying his passion for acting and his expensive theater education into demeaning work guiding the unwashed masses of America through their pop culture obsessions and instant-gratification mentalities.

James is also stuck with parents who are too accepting of him and his sexuality. They are sometimes in the way and overbearing, not allowing him to spread his wings and fly. His best friend Brandon seems more at home in the gay world, and this causes James some envy and angst.

29th & Gay doesn’t really have anything new to tell us. We’ve seen it all before: the gay man not quite comfortable in his own skin, the flamboyant circuit boy who is the object of everyone’s sexual desires, the “fag hag” who means well, and the unattainable hunk who, just when he seems quite out of reach, manages to show us he’s human and can fall for someone whose league he’s outside of, so to speak.

Yet, for all its stereotypes and been-there-seen-that nature, 29th & Gay manages to be entertaining and charming primarily due to the script and central performance by James Vasquez. He has a very natural presence on screen and every moment of his performance rings true.

The assumption is that Vasquez wrote and made 29th & Gay as a showcase to garner more work in mainstream productions with bigger budgets. He has succeeded, because it’s a great showcase for what he could do as a character actor on film and television.

The film opens with a lovely and quirky title sequence. There are also nice segments that celebrate the absurd and revel in the surreal. Particularly fun is a segment where James and Brandon go to a clinic to get tested for STDs.

The story tries to blend over-the-top comedy with gritty realism, but that balance doesn’t always come off as believable in the hands of director Carrie Preston. Yet for the most part, she does a nice job moving the film along and keeping the focus on James, who thankfully is just an average protagonist.

While it breaks absolutely no ground, it still makes for fun viewing. It is time for queer cinema to grow up. Yet, truth be told, because LGBT cinema often tries to aspire to be Hollywood cinema, and because mainstream industry films have a lot of growing up to do themselves, LGBT movies find themselves in an interesting yet utterly avoidable rut. But that is a larger discussion for another time.

29th & Gay is worth watching just for it protagonist James--charming, affable, bumbling, average and utterly human.             |







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