Last weekend, we watched Akron, a recently released movie I'd heard about as it played at various nationals and international film festivals, winning numerous awards and accolades.
The name of the film is also the primary setting: Akron, Ohio.
Our two main characters are Benny and Christopher, college freshmen who meet on the football field, after an intramural game as opposing team members. They chat, there’s a mutual interest, so Benny asks, “Christopher, can I get your number?”
It's the matter-of-fact way this happens that made the movie unexpected and refreshing for me. So often in films featuring prominent gay characters, especially young gay characters, the primary conflict centers on self-loathing, confronting such matters as conflicted feelings, endless internal questioning, the angst of coming out, an inner struggle for self acceptance, unrequited first love, religious shame, parental or societal rejection, bullying, etc. Too often, there's that one scene where a character will "give in" to their desire, then sink into regret, guilt or despair.
Those are obviously common realities, so they’re familiar cinematic plot devices.
However, such themes are absent here.
There were also elements within this story that could have been employed in a stereotypical way to manufacture drama about them being gay.
Benny is Mexican-American, from a strong Latino family.
Fellow team members or classmates could have proven to be obnoxious homophobes.
Hell, the fact they live in middle America could have been use as a point of tension.
But none of that happened, either.
From all outward appearances, Benny and Christopher’s respective families and mutual friends are completely supportive of their sexual orientation. In fact, when Benny gets home from school, after meeting Christopher, he tells his Mom he’d met someone. She’s thrilled. There’s even some good-natured teasing from his younger sister.
For all those reasons, I would declare: this is NOT a “gay film.”
It’s not a movie about either boy suddenly discovering they’re gay, or others learning they are gay, or the desire to not be gay. The fact they are gay is a non-issue. While the movie is about these two men falling in love, the story would also work if it had been a guy and a girl. Again, the sexuality of the two main characters is secondary to the premise.
In the first half of the movie we watch the progress of Benny and Christopher’s budding relationship, beginning with their first date and first kiss. We see them walking hand-in-hand on campus, kissing openly as they dance together at a party and “canoodling” in public. Eventually, they spend the night together. It’s treated as blasé and nonchalant.
But as the Bard taught us, the course of true love doesn’t run smoothly. And of course, a movie needs conflict; that’s Screenwriting 101. A happy movie couple must have obstacles to overcome. (That’s Life 101.)
A heartbreaking incident...something from a shared past the boys didn’t know they had...will surface. It was nothing either of them did, but it impacted both of their families.
For Christopher, it set a new course for his childhood. His family moved away from Akron, and it possibly contributed to his parents' divorce.
This same event re-defined Benny’s family, becoming an unhealed, ever-present wound, but never-talked-about grief. Benny has always felt over-shadowed by what happened, and played the dutiful role of “good boy” to ease the pain of his mother.
Author's Note: To say too much would reveal a key plot point...though the "twist" is fairly obvious from the movie's first scene.
Christopher learns the secret on the day he and Benny are driving down to Florida to stay with his new-age, yoga instructor mother for Spring Break. He makes the decision to stay quiet. When his Mom makes the connection of Benny and her past (in the hot tub, no less), she insists the truth must be confronted, consequences be damned. Benny refuses to stay. As the two guys leave, Christopher blames his Mom for ruining the vacation, upsetting Benny and putting the relationship in jeopardy.
When Benny finally tells his mother, their close-knit family is devastated. His parents demand he stop seeing Christopher. His father tells him it’s a choice—love for his mother and loyalty to family must come before his feelings for Christopher.
Suddenly, it’s not about the two boys, or their feelings for one another. It’s about this tragedy, one they didn’t cause and over which they had no control. By now, our happy couple might just as well be named Capulet and Montague (Romeo and Juliet) or Tony and Marie (West Side Story).
Everyone...and their relationship...will be affected by the revelation.
It will test what it means to be a family.
Each must decide: which is stronger—hurt and grief, or love and forgiveness? Do we live in the anguish of the past, or choose to embrace the present in order to have a future?
Akron is a sweet, touching and emotional story, with solid characters and a stellar cast.
The movie is not rated.
There is no actual violence. While the past tragedy was horrific, it’s not given graphic depiction.
Sex is suggested, but not explicit, beyond making out. (Nothing more than what would be shown between couples on the average evening TV show.)
There’s no nudity.
Profanity is limited, including a couple of “f-bombs.”
We rented this movie on Amazon, but it’s one I've purchased for my collection. It’s also available to stream on other services, such as Vudu, Vimeo and iTunes.
If you rent and watch, I'd welcome your thoughts.