20 July, 2010

Movie Review: Wild Tigers I Have Known (2006)

Cam Archer's debut feature film, Wild Tigers I Have Known, at times perfectly illustrates what it's like to realize that you are gay at the age of thirteen.

Malcolm Stumpf plays the film's coming-of-age hero, Logan, a boy who spends a lot of time alone or avoiding being picked on or delving into idealized, not-quite-sexual masturbation fantasies. By most standards Logan should measure up to being deemed cool by his junior high peers: he has an awesome wardrobe (heart-splattered sweaters, vintage tees, fashionably cut hoodies) and wispy salon hair, he's just intelligent and funny and soft spoken enough to not be offensive in either direction (neither too brainy or too dumb), and he's neither fat nor ugly. He should be quite popular, and yet his only friend, Joey (Max Paradise), is a nerdy, awkward child with a horrible haircut and the most bizarre bedroom ever filmed (think lava lamps, globes, and slide projectors).

Logan's alienation is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy, a defense mechanism from within that has forced him to remove himself from "normal" friends so that others, as well as he himself, can avoid discovering how severe his abnormality is. Logan is gay, a fact he doesn't quite understand. He denies being gay--"gay," after all, is an insulting term, so who in their right mind would ever admit to being it?--but knows that he likes boys, a fact he confesses to an uncomfortable Joey late in the film. If he can avoid being too close to people, then Logan can avoid ever having to reveal his secrets to others, and he can avoid the rejection that may come from his confused, frightened peers when this secrets are inevitably revealed. Logan has chosen loneliness, but a prevaricating conversation with his guidance counselor reveals he dreams of a world where he is loved by others.

He mostly wants to be loved by Rodeo (Patrick White), an older, sullen rebel without a cause whose quest to be a true loner drives him to befriend the uncool, younger kid. Rodeo tells Logan exactly what he wants to hear--that he doesn't hate him--and their friendship begins as a meaningful one. But the relationship enters darker territory when Rodeo begins feeding his own self-esteem at the expense of Logan's affections by fueling the boy's obvious though secret desires. It's a scenario that can only end in disaster, and it perfectly illustrates the disastrous nature of most teenage relationships, where each side is driven more by its own alienated insecurity than by any mutual understanding.

Cam Archer has beautifully photographed a sad childhood--an intense era of raging hormones, of crushing loneliness, of desperation, of morbid depression, of constantly fearing failure and rejection, of yearning to be loved and understood, and of being unable to understand even yourself. With cinematography by Aaron Platt, Archer has painted an impressionistic vision of a contradictory time: a time that is beautiful and yet obsessed with ugliness, a time that we wish would just hurry up and pass and yet carries with it such important moments in life, a time when our bodies demand sex though our minds can't quite comprehend it. Much of the film is spent with Logan alone, either watching him navigate his loneliness in bathrooms or while staring at the television, or else entering into his mind in more personal journeys--elegant yet sex-free sex fantasies that emphasize his own desire to be beautiful as much as his desire to see beauty in the flesh, frightened flashes of bullies, and vague yearnings of death.

There isn't much dialogue or action in the movie, which is perhaps best given the amateurish acting of the young cast. Fairuza Balk, as Logan's exhausted and demanding mother, gives a solid turn as a woman who can provide just the right tenderness at precisely the right moment yet who mostly resorts to thoughtless criticism and stress-inducing nagging. In that respect she's a typical, complex mother, a woman who's not always a teenager's best friend yet will always be there with love and forgiveness. The screenplay doesn't demand much of Stumpf rather than his mere presence, tortured yet surviving, so in that regard Stumpf is solid. His subtle facial expressions, mixed with subjective sound, editing, and photography, comprise the basic plot of this artsy film: an emotional journey from fear and self-loathing into independence and security. A subplot involving mountain lions, one of which has recently wandered onto school grounds provoking fear and its extermination, cleverly manifests the movie's theme of irrational fear. The mountain lion, as frightened as the kids it encounters, not wishing to harm anyone except to defend itself, is a lot like any kid let loose on a junior high campus: capable of serious damage but mostly just wanting to find and get back to its place in the world.

Wild Tigers I Have Known is an elegantly filmed, poignant, and genuine debut film, likely the first of many notable films to come from the young Cam Archer. It's not perfect in its presentation. I for one am tired of films about gay or sexually confused teenagers always featuring a scene in which the youngster dresses in makeup and women's clothing in a bathroom (L.I.E., Billy Elliot, Ma Vie en Rose, Hallam Foe). I never did nor ever felt interested in doing that, something that hints at a desire to be female (or at least the ease that would come in securing boyfriends if one were female) which, I think, is more prevalent in films about gay men than in reality. Yet despite cliches like this, the film is overall truthful and fresh.

Wild Tigers I Have Known (2006)
d/w: Cam Archer
(Malcolm Stumpf, Fairuza Balk, Patrick White)

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