Wednesday, October 18, 2023

NewFest Review: National Anthem

I've been following Charlie Plummer's career closely ever since its start when he wowed me at Tribeca in 2015 with the film King Jack (here is my review) -- and as a sidetone if you've never seen that movie it's streaming on Tubi and I very much recommend it; it's a lovely small coming of age film -- and it's thankfully proven fruitful as he's made several movies of not ever since, including Lean on Pete with Andrew Haigh and the deeply creepy horror film The Clovehitch Killer. But he's gotten his finest role and given his greatest performance to date with photographer turned first-time-filmmaker Luke Gilford's astonishingly lovely new movie National Anthem, which just screened at NewFest last night. 

What began as a photography project for Gilford, documenting the attendants and participants in the queer rodeos that are staged in the Southwest U.S. for a now out-of-print book he released in 2020, morphed into this movie which tells the story of Dylan (Plummer), a lost soul slaving away at dead-end jobs to take care of his little brother while their mother (Robyn Lively aka Teen Witch!) is thoughtlessly absent, fighting her own demons. Fortune shines upon Dylan one day when he gets a couple weeks worth of work on a queer ranch way out in the middle of nowhere that introduces him to the scene, as well as Sky (Eve Lindley), the girl of his dreams from the first moment he sees her. 

Across the film's brief but bountiful ninety minutes Gilford proves an immediate talent -- not just visually, which was expected given his already established photographer's eye, but emotionally and narratively, all of which he nails at every turn. Dylan's introduction to the queer rodeo and its people has all the time-worn qualities of an outsider's eyes being opened to a wondrous new world -- we have seen this sort of arc many times before. But Gilford and his actors imbue the story with so much warmth and heart and beauty and real emotional depth that nothing rings false -- there's not a single boot step out of place.

These feel like genuine people at every moment -- lived-in and honest. And every time you think the script might strain toward a false emotion it finds a wiser, truer path. It helps that the chemistry between Plummer and Lindley is off-the-charts (this is a very sexy movie -- I don't think I have ever seen someone understand the innate allure of denim better than Gilford does here) but also the script never takes its eyes off the emotional complications these characters are all knotted up in. And it finds something new to say about the messiness of love somehow? Who saw that possibility coming?

As good and shockingly assured as everything is though, it's Plummer who ties it all together -- flush with discovery and all of the excitement and terror that accompanies it his face is a storm of complex feelings, weaving in and out of each other in disharmony and harmony and then confusion all over again. It's gold-star grade work, one of the great performances of the year, and hopefully people will take note. National Anthem is all like that -- it seems we might just have a new queer classic on our hands here y'all, so do scoot on over its way.

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