Newbie filmmaker Aaron Douglas Johnson’s debut feature is an unsettling docu-drama hybrid that arose from a very personal tragedy in his life. Johnson was born in a small town in Iowa and as an only child he grew up very close to his cousin Matt. By all accounts Matthew, a devout Catholic and a passionate Republican, was a very popular member of his high school soccer team. Matthew was also gay, and at the age of 24 committed suicide after coming out of the closet in his hometown. This film however is not a biopic but Johnson’s attempt to try and get a better understanding of what it must have been like for Matthew to struggle with his sexuality in this small town in Middle America.
The film successfully mixes a fictional story about Alexa a young blond Dutch woman who had befriended Matt on a Course somewhere and she has flown to Iowa from Amsterdam to make a documentary about her friends passing. Amongst all the interviews she films (unscripted and with very actual local lesbians and gays) she goes on somewhat of her own roller-coaster ride as she also starts to discover her own true identity as well.
Settling into a house where she has rented a room for the summer, Alexa is so caught up in her own world that she is unaware that Lukas her landlord, a lonely man in his 40’s, is immediately attracted to her. In fact we soon discover that she has an unfortunate manner taking all kindnesses for granted and happily using and promptly discarding everybody who takes any interest in her.
After her first night in Iowa this somewhat confused girl wakes up in a strange bed without much recollection on how she ended up there. Her bed partner is Jennifer a local bartender/artist and the two women could not be more opposite. Not just because this is Alexa’s first time with a woman, but the fact out and proud lesbian Jennifer is an edgy positive woman who knows exactly what she wants out of life. And that doesn’t include sleeping with ‘straight’ women who end up running back to their boyfriends, as she has done that already.
Alexa’s voyage of discovery will start at that moment when she cannot wait to get dressed and get out of Jennifer’s apartment. She’ll be back on and off, but not before she has a romp in a cemetery (well with a male grave digger) who, when he has finished making out with her in her room, is then unceremoniously kicked out by the Landlord at her request. Lukas will eventually try his luck after he has seen Alex dispensing sexual favors liberally with others, and when she resists, he rapes her.
Johnson’s intriguing and thought-provoking film is somewhat disturbing. Not simply as the talking heads so poignantly articulate their own strife dealing, and overcoming, with some of the negative consequences after acknowledging the truth about their sexuality, but using a thoughtless and self-absorbed protagonist in the fictional story made it nigh on impossible to sympathise with her at times. It was however a very clever and unusual formula for re-inforcing his key message i.e. its still tough being out and gay in so many places even today.
Johnson should be applauded for honoring his cousin’s memory in this manner, and if this movie succeeds in just saving one more life, then it was all definitely worthwhile.