Sunday, June 21, 2009
Set in 2006 (back in the days when wealth, capitalism and prosperity seemed to have no limits), Chris Mason Johnson’s first feature film, The New Twenty, glows with intelligence, craft, fine direction, and the work of an exceptionally strong acting ensemble. It has a keen sense of its precarious moment in history, the generation it represents, and each character’s complex emotional handicaps and motivations. As Johnson explains in his director’s statement:
“The New Twenty is an ensemble drama about five friends nearing 30 who’ve remained close since college. Their extended family has outlived its usefulness. It’s time to move on. The characters in The New Twenty are ready to move on and grow up, even if they don’t know it yet. But leaving that first circle of friends is like leaving family — it’s not always easy. As it happens, their ironic and somewhat tortured self-involvement coincides with what we now see as a particularly ugly chapter in America’s financial markets history.
For quite a while our country has encouraged its best and brightest to go into banking and that hasn’t turned out so well, to say the least. A title at the head of the film — 2006 — locates this narrative in the very recent but very different past. In The New Twenty my characters struggle with life choices that feel empty or cynical, but they either don’t have the courage to make a change or don’t realize they need to. Perhaps, luckily for them (in their fictional future), the whole financial edifice comes tumbling down just a couple short years after the story ends.”
The key characters in Johnson’s drama include:
* Julie Kim (Nicole Bilderback), a beautiful and intelligent young investment banker who is all too aware that the reason she keeps getting promoted is because having a high-ranking Asian American looks good for her employer’s diversity profile.
* Andrew Hatch (Ryan Locke), Julie’s fiancé, a wannabe alpha dog. A database programmer totally lacking in management skills, Andrew is a cocky, manipulative jerk who plays squash with Julie’s brother, Tony.
* Ben (Colin Fickes), a gay slacker who desperately wants to be included in the group’s activities but is rightfully regarded by them as a total loser.
* Tony (Andrew Wei Lin), Julie’s gay brother who works in advertising and shares an apartment with her best friend from college.
* Felix (Thomas Sadoski), Tony’s roommate who has a serious drug problem and can never seem to manage a relationship with a woman. Felix likes to claim that “we all suffer from a touch of existential malaise courtesy of late capitalism.”
* Robert (Bill Sage), a middle-aged professor who becomes Tony’s boyfriend after they meet in the sauna at the gym. Robert is very shy, HIV positive, doesn’t like to talk much, and is definitely not looking for a relationship.
* Louie (Terry Serpico), an alpha dog venture capitalist who plays squash at the same health club frequented by Andrew and Tony. Louie is a homophobic asshole who wastes no time going after Andrew’s fiancée, Julie.
There were many moments in The New Twenty that made me think of 1983’s The Big Chill as a once closely-knit group starts to come apart at the seams. Perhaps most impressive is how Johnson deals with issues of fidelity and male bonding. This may be one of the first movies to deal sensitively with the challenges of consciously entering into a relationship in which one partner is negative and the other is HIV positive. Straight and gay sensitivities do not clash so much as coexist in this film. As Johnson explains:
“In The New Twenty I depict gay/straight friendships between young men that are free of the homosexual panic jokes and unrequited love conflicts that usually dominate the screen. The fact is, gay/straight friendships (minus the drama) are more and more common for young adults, especially the urban and educated. We may not have reached a “post-gay” moment yet (Prop 8, anyone?) but we’re getting there. The casual attitude toward gay/straight bonding for characters like those in The New Twenty might be summed up as: what’s the big deal?
And yet, despite my insistence on the easygoing nature of this mix, I knew homophobia had to play into my story since our brave new world does have its share of it. Something that runs so deep must leave a trace, but what kind of trace? The answer came in two ways: first through my antagonist, Louie (the older venture capitalist who helps young alpha male Andrew launch his new career and who is blatantly if amusingly homophobic); the second through the more subtle dscomfort my male characters express without necessarily knowing it, through humor. In other words, homosexual panic used to lead to violence. Now it leads to jokes.”
The New Twenty took me by surprise with its strength, maturity, and honesty. Like Chéri, it captures a critical moment within a particular subset of society just before everything falls apart. It’s one of the few ensemble films I’ve seen in which the Gaysian male is the most level-headed character, the one most willing to take responsibility for his actions.