Todd (Actor/writer/director James Sweeney) has always considered himself a gay man, mainly because he was treated as one. He doesn’t like sex, in fact he is generally scared and wary of most things in life. He tells his therapist (Tracie Thoms) that he is disheartened about same-sex relationships and aims to drift in the straight dating world. His friends seem to have found love, or at least companionship, in the world of straight romance, maybe this is the way forward for him instead?
His cliché Californian fame-chasing friends think he’s suffering from internalised homophobia and will slowly get over it. After all, Todd has an anxiety-induced history of ideas. Todd soon proves them wrong and meets someone when he encounters failing actress, Rory (The Killing’s Katie Findlay) in a classic library meet-cute. They develop a mutual relationship, two loners who unexpectedly discover they are different sides of the same coin. She’s the self-declared Hepburn to his Tracy. They love each other’s personalities, get each other’s references, and are both happily celibate (although for different reasons). Todd and Rory perfectly build a relationship that functions the same as any other couples, minus the sexual conflict.
Straight Up asks the question; is a relationship just friendship with added sex or can two soulmates really be in love if intercourse is off the table? The profound difference between love and friendship is teased although never fully explored. Straight Up doesn’t have the answer to the complicated inner workings of love and sex, but it will make audiences think about their take on it.
Todd and Rory speak at thousand miles an hour, worried if their OCD-ridden brains stop talking they may implode. Their dialogue is a contrast to Todd’s friends, the obnoxious Ryder (You’s James Scully) and the frivolously vain Meg (Dana Drori). The supporting cast of generically attractive people who speak in quasi-obscure pop culture references aren’t very interesting, but that’s the point. Todd’s problems stem from the fact he feels out of place in a society where sexual fluidity and one-night stands are common place. He’s a literal thinker in a world of laterals.
Straight Up is brave in how ambiguous its writing and its characters are. Todd, in desperation to fix his problems, offers to be the perfect person for Rory, but both know this is unrealistic and entirely temporary. Like any rom-com, nothing good can last forever, but this relationship’s complications are far from generic. It’s refreshing for a queer narrative to not just be about getting a man and having sex. Love can sometimes just be a gay man loving a straight woman, but not necessarily in the heteronormative way Nora Ephron talks about love.
The only person who is impressed with Todd’s new relationship is his intolerant father (Randall Park). The scenes where he takes Rory to meet his father and mother (Betsy Brandt) is a movie highlight. His father advocates that only college-educated people should have children and isn’t a fan of Latin immigrants, perfectly summing up the hypocrisy of those who have done well from their humble beginnings only to not want others to have the same opportunities. This meeting with his parents makes him question if his father would warmly welcome a boyfriend in the same way as they welcome Rory. All of Todd’s quirks, fears and hang-ups come from his parents, the script never says this explicitly, but it clearly shows it in this fast paced dinner.
All the scenes take place in bright and airy spaces, and unrealistically big Los Angeles properties. Straight Up is carefully framed by Greg Cotton (Funny Story) in 4:3 aspect ratio. It’s not just Todd’s space, the whole film is brimmed with symmetrical designs and an emptiness that makes the audience feel how lonely the city can be. The quick-paced delivery will be charming to some, and an irritant to others. Tucked away in this mile per minute wit are some smart takes on society and dating, but ultimately the substance gets lost in the pace. It zips past topics like asexuality, sexual assault, and the queer experience; but pay attention or you may miss an important message.
Straight Up is a fantastic showcase for a promising voice who understands the current sexual and emotional landscape. Todd may be confused, but Sweeney feels like a fully formed voice in cinema. Straight Up dodges any problematic clichés or uncomfortable gender politics. The film is hard to dislike because this charming couple feel realistically complicated and sweetly honest. Sweeney speaks to the idea that representations matters, and everyone deserves a good love story, even if they’re not quite sure what this is.
by Amelia Harvey
Amelia Harvey is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy