Picture

 
Cypher Avenue Rating: 3.5 of 5      
 

PictureCritiquing the work of independent artists is tricky business. It’s unfair to compare these Indies to big budget, multiple resourced endeavers. On the other hand, too many people dishonestly praise horrible indie projects, which does the artist a disservice in effectively honing their craft. This brings me to my dilemma in critiquing Patrik-Ian Polk’s new film, “The Skinny”.

The Skinny follows five gay friends as they reunite one year after college graduation for a three-day weekend in New York City. Leading the pack is Magnus (Jussie Smollett), currently in a questionable four-month relationship with bad boy Ryan (Dustin Ross). His puppy-dog sidekick Sebastian (Blake Young-Fountain) happens to be in love with the only masculine guy in the bunch, Kyle (Anthony Burrell), who’s a nonchalant playboy.  Rounding out the troop is gay wisdom filled Joey (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and their token lesbian best friend Langston (Shanika Warren-Markland).

In a previous post, I’ve discussed my overall issues with the work of Polk (the self proclaimed Gay Tyler Perry) but even then I admitted that he’s not only good at what he does, he’s also the best openly gay filmmaker out there consistently telling stories about and for Gay men of color. To counter this point, people can conjure up the names Maurice Jamal, Quincy LeNear and Deondray Gossett, but those filmmakers have been very inconsistent in content and/or quality over the years. With each new project, Patrik-Ian Polk grows as an artist and it shows.


Having said that, my mixed feelings about Polk’s work (Punks, Noah’s Arc) have always stemmed from not ever being able to relate to any of his stories/characters as a masculine Gay black man myself. So when I sat down for a screening of the new film, I tried to keep my expectations in neutral. At the end, while I enjoyed the film very much, I immediately considered the dilemma mentioned in the opening of this review: How critical and honest should I be of an independent artist’s work? Ultimately, I decided to just put it all out there. Real artists yearn for feedback…whether good, bad or ugly.
Picture

 
THE GOOD
 
Overall, “The Skinny” feels like a primer for young gay men on the multitude of obstacles and experiences related to the “lifestyle.” Some scenes literally come off as “how-to” manuals for achieving success and avoiding dangers. From “cheating boyfriends” to “how to meet men” to “online dating sites” to “gay porn” to “sex parties” to “gay clubs” to “how to prepare for sex” to “getting tested for STDs”…literally every aspect is covered.

Polk shows gained confidence behind the camera in this film. His attention to technical quality continues, as his cinematography and audio are precise and crisp in every scene (rare for indie black gay films). Sections of the screenplay seemed to be taken right out of direct conversations I’ve even had with friends relating to ill conceived paw-print and star tattoos, gay online dating websites and sex-parties. This is evidence that Polk has definitely been taking very good notes from real-life conversations had by many gay men around the country.

The cast of all new (very attractive) faces hold their own given the material. For an independent film, Polk makes very good use of limited locations (although he requires a suspension of disbelief from the audience in believing that a group of gay friends visiting NYC would go to the SAME gay club 3 nights in a row).

Lastly, I was extremely impressed by Polk’s use of cameos. Instead of arbitrarily dropping in a familiar face here and there, the guest appearances in “The Skinny” are actually integrated into the plot of the film. Notable cameos include 2011 Discreet City Award Winner Derrick L. Briggs; Punks alum Seth Gilliam; Noah’s Arc alums Darryl Stephens, Wilson Cruz and Jennia Fredrique; controversial gay model Zeric Seymour-Armenteros; gay porn stars Phat Daddy and Hot Rod.

Picture

 
THE BAD
 
With all of the aforementioned assets, the most unfortunate thing about “The Skinny” is the lack of enough of a story to sustain its 100-minute running time.  By the mid-point, the film just kind of meanders along as it continues to retread story elements that were already concluded by the audience.

For example, a character discovers that his lover is cheating on him in the most disrespectful and extreme of ways…then rightfully breaks up with him in dramatic fashion. In another film, that would be the start of the character spreading his wings and experiencing freedom with his old friends, Hangover-style. In this film, we are forced to witness the character moping around only to be interrupted by three more revelations/confrontations/arguments with the boyfriend. It may have better served the audience if the dramatic definitive proof of the adultery had been revealed much later in the film leaving us to wonder if it were actually true in the process.

In another example, the angelic character Sebastian (for some never explained reason) desperately yearns to give his virginity to the love of his life Kyle (a disinterested friend in the group who’s a proven playboy and swinger) by the end of the weekend. Every other character repeatedly warns him that this will not end well. The audience continually knows this will not end well. So to our non-surprise 70 minutes later, it doesn’t end well.

Smaller character films like this generally work better when there are big twists and turns. The surprises that Polk lays out for us are spoiled by the writer himself in his own screenplay. It’s the equivalent of sending us an invitation to our own surprise birthday party…a month beforehand.

Picture

 
THE UGLY
 
While the main actors portray their characters adequately (and look really good on camera), none of them really stand out, performance-wise. There were even occasional “cringe moments” that took me (and the rest of the audience in attendance) out of the film. As handsome as first time actor Anthony Burrell looks in the film, the audience couldn’t help but laugh at the times the camera lingered on his dopey “I’m sorry for what I did even though I don’t know what I did” expressions a few seconds too long. Also, most of the “argument scenes” in the film come off flat from being either too rehearsed or poorly scripted, causing audience chuckles as well. It was hard to tell if the acting, writing or directing was at fault.

Lastly, there’s very little character development and growth. This is vital for any character-based film such as this. There was no sense that any of them had changed and/or arced over the 100-minutes except for Sebastian. Ultimately, I had no sense of who these characters were and why they wanted what they wanted or did what they did. The film features a group of young post-graduates finally reunited but there’s hardly any discussion of how they’ve grown or changed in their time away. There’s not even an explanation of how such a wildly different group of people could have become such close friends in the first place. Instead we’re given extended scenes explaining how to clean and prepare for anal sex.

How could such a wise, meticulous person like Magnus have fallen for and gotten into a committed relationship with a dishonest, roughneck sex-addict like Ryan in the first place, especially if they’d never had sex themselves? Why would an angelic “good guy” virgin like Sebastian be messy enough to want his first time to be with the known playboy in his own crew, is Kyle the only Top left in NYC? Why is Kyle so totally oblivious to Sebastian’s advances if he’s such the experienced playboy? Why are Joey and Langston such one-dimensional prop characters with little to no purpose and/or development in the entire film except to provide one-liners and eye-candy?

Questions like these can be viewed as nit-picking, but having all bases covered with your characters and story make us feel for their causes more. The more we KNOW them, the more we want them to succeed in getting what they want. Storytelling 101. Example: A simple comedy like Bridesmaids works on another level because as we watch it we feel like we KNOW all of those characters. We got a true sense of who they were through character development and story.

As it stands now, this film reinforces the notion that ALL BLACK GAY FILMS must be about getting in an intimate relationship, out of an intimate relationship and/or getting laid. I vaguely even remembered any character actually discussing what jobs they had or if they were working in the career path of their brand new degrees. No…relevant character discoveries like that are secondary to cheating boyfriends, anal sex preparation and anonymous gay club restroom make-out sessions.

Picture

 
THE CONCLUSION
 
While the movie was still enjoyable, aspects like those above can easily separate a good film from a great one. At the end of it all, I’d still recommend this feature film above all others by gay men of color. With all of the shortcomings, there are many positives. We need more films like this, not only to allow us to see more representations of gay men and women of color on the screen, but to also set a technical quality standard for independent gay black films in the future.

Read an exclusive interview with Patrik-Ian Polk on “The Skinny” here at Cypher Avenue.

– Nick D