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If Blackbird were a drinking game, your state of influence would depend on the parameters you chose. Knocking one back every time a character said words akin to “acceptance” and “unconditional love” would leave you nearly sober. Pick “Jesus,” “God,” “pray,” and “sin,” however, and you’re en route to alcohol poisoning within the first 10 minutes.
So it’s a relief when a high-school girl named Leslie (Wanita “‘D. Woods” Woodgett) says, “It might be nice to take a break from Jesus for a while,” right after those opening scenes. From then on, director Patrik-Ian Polk (who co-adapted a novel by the same name with Rikki Beadle-Blair) reins in the God talk, at least enough to tame the dialogue from power drill to small hammer.
That doesn’t mean Blackbird is subtle. The present-day story takes place in a small Mississippi town, where 17-year-old Randy (Julian Walker) is the lead of the school choir and, like most of his neighbors, a strict Christian. But he’s struggling with his sexuality, having nightly wet dreams about his friend Todd (Torrey Laamar) and denying that he’s gay whenever his other friends encourage him to open up. But it doesn’t matter whether Randy’s inner circle would be accepting—as he tells a confidant, “I wake up soaked in… sin.”
The apparent conflict between religion and queerness is Blackbird’s central story. But while the well-intentioned Polk eventually metes out talk of the former more judiciously, he then guns it to Full Gay Ahead: The theatrical Randy not only ends up as one of the leads in his school’s envelope-pushing production of Romeo & Julian, he’s hired for a student film in which his character is raped by a man. The actor playing the rapist is Marshall (Kevin Allesee), and wouldn’t you know it—he’s gay, assertive, and cute.
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Blackbird is praiseworthy for tackling an aspect of coming out that burdens many of the faithful—their anxiety isn’t only about social ramifications, but the common belief that the Bible says homosexuality is a sin. (Randy jumps out of bed after one dream to pray for the fantasies to stop and is later subjected to a trippy and just plain bizarre “deliverance” ritual, performed by his pastor and mother.) But then Polk overstuffs the 99-minute film with other issues, including teen pregnancy, abortion, and sexually transmitted infections. Randy’s four friends sure are unlucky.
A meatier subplot—one that actually factors into Randy’s angst—involves his younger sister, who’s been missing for six years. The girl’s disappearance has crippled their mother, Claire (Mo’Nique, by far the most memorable of the cast), into a delusional, occasionally psychotic shell who has only brief touches with reality. Her husband, the kids’ father (Isaiah Washington, known for his use of homophobic slurs IRL), left. When Claire sees Randy kissing a boy, her rage is palpably wrenching as she fires hateful thoughts at her son, essentially blaming him for his sister’s kidnapping.
In addition to the hot-words overkill, Blackbird offers some gut-busting exchanges (“So you do believe in God?” “I do when I’m with you”) and unrealistic, obvious behavior (Randy shoots daggers at Todd’s girlfriend when she joins them while rehearsing a song). But along with Mo’Nique and Washington’s performances, the film’s message about the toxicity of self-denial redeems it, if just barely. Like Randy, Blackbird is safe from condemnation.
Do you believe in love at first sight? Howabout love at first sight of Anton Yelchin?
Not to be superficial, but let’s be superficial. Among thespians, there are those who are pegged as leading men and others who are classified as character actors. Some are able to morph into either, but Yelchin, who’s probably best known for playing Chekov in 2009’s Star Trek, really isn’t the morphing kind.
So in 5 to 7, television writer Victor Levin’s feature directorial debut, a rather significant suspension of disbelief is required to buy the setup. Brian (Yelchin), a 24-year-old aspiring writer, and Arielle (Bérénice Marlohe), a 33-year-old French former model, lock eyes across a New York street with an instant and mutual attraction. Even before they have a conversation, they each seem to have decided that a romance is about to begin.
Notice that I mention conversation—I’m not so anti-Anton that I think his characters could never interest a beautiful woman. (Like Crazy, his film with Felicity Jones, is one example of Yelchin more believably getting the girl.) But in 5 to 7, which Levin also wrote, Arielle is really beautiful and very much a woman, and therefore unlikely to give the boyish Brian a second glance. And the bulk of their relationship is physical: She’s available to see him only from 5 to 7 p.m., which in French culture is actually a thing. The reason? Arielle is married with children, and that two-hour window is when people in committed relationships are said to conduct their affairs.
No matter how hard Marlohe smiles, however—and boy does she force ’em—you never feel the couple’s chemistry. But Arielle is allegedly so smitten that her husband, Valery (Lambert Wilson), has noticed her newfound sparkle and invites Brian to their home for dinner along with his young mistress, Jane (Olivia Thirlby).
Buried in the script are ideas worth exploring, largely surrounding the cultural differences between Americans and the French. When they surface, though, these ideas are simply stated instead of discussed. (“Maybe there’s another way of looking at life,” Arielle suggests to Brian, failing to engage the thought.) The film also teaches that love leads to professional success, in case you didn’t know.
In addition to its lack of heat, 5 to 7 suffers from painfully stiff dialogue: “Life is a collection of moments. The idea is to have as many good ones as you can.” “We’ll go to the movies. Something from a big American studio.” (Both lines courtesy of the very American Jane.) There’s a whole lot of gimmickry, too, and endless purple voiceovers that are accompanied by a score with varying degrees of treacle. (In one scene, it seems as if the sound is mixed so the music is louder, to extra emphasize the moment.)
Frank Langella and Glenn Close, playing Brian’s respectively grouchy and slightly batty father and mother, are by far the best things about the film, bringing more life and personality to their small roles than all of the main characters combined. Whenever they’re onscreen, it’s clear that Levin focused on the wrong couple.
Blackbird opens April 24 at the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market.
5 to 7 opens April 24 at E Street Cinema.