The Movie Waffler Raindance Film Festival 2024 Review - NATIONAL ANTHEM | The Movie Waffler

Raindance Film Festival 2024 Review - NATIONAL ANTHEM

National Anthem review
A shy laborer explores his sexuality when he takes a job on a ranch run by a queer community.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Luke Gilford

Starring: Charlie Plummer, Eve Lindley, Mason Alexander Park, Rene Rosado, Robyn Lively

National Anthem poster

In Andrew Haigh's Lean on PeteCharlie Plummer played a young man with an alcoholic parent who finds a new lease of life when he takes a job on a ranch. In Luke Gilford's National Anthem, Plummer plays a young man with an alcoholic parent who finds a new lease of life when he takes a job on a ranch. You haven't seen a ranch like this one on screen before though. It's staffed exclusively by members of the queer community, who take part in America's queer rodeo circuit.

National Anthem review

Plummer is Dylan, a shy and sensitive 21-year-old who works as a day laborer on various New Mexico construction sites. Each morning he lines up, a lone white face among latin immigrants, and waits to be picked up by whoever needs some manual labour performed. One morning he finds himself in the back of a pickup truck and is dropped off at a ranch in the desert. The rainbow flag hanging from the gatepost is the first sign that Dylan is in unfamiliar surrounds. As the various gay and trans residents flirt and tease this shy young man, Dylan doesn't feel uncomfortable, but rather at home. It seems he may have found his people.

Dylan's eye is caught by Sky (Eve Lindley), a young trans woman. The feeling is mutual. Sky comes on strong, trying to crack open Dylan's defensive shell, but he's apprehensive and confused regarding Sky's relationship with his boss, Pepe (Rene Rosado). He also fears his alcoholic mother, Fiona (Robyn Lively), discovering his secret life with these rodeo queens. When Fiona picks up her son from the ranch she makes a dismissively derogatory comment about the presence of that rainbow flag. Dylan's ally at home is his kid brother Cassidy, whom Dylan seems to suspect may be queer himself.

National Anthem review

National Anthem's narrative is stencilled with the same template as something like Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, with an innocent young man having his eyes opened and his mind blown by exposure to a subculture he never knew existed but to which he instantly feels like he belongs. And of course there's a worldly young woman to guide his hand and capture his heart. An affable drag queen, Carrie (Mason Alexander Park), provides Dylan with advice on how to deal with this new world, much like Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lester Bangs did for the young protagonist of Crowe's film.

Gilford's directorial debut is very much a coming-of-age drama, but its thinly drawn characters feel like they belong in a genre movie. Sky behaves so much like a thriller femme fatale, and the musclebound Pepe is such a stock threatening boyfriend figure, that you'll be forgiven for waiting for the moment Sky ropes Dylan into killing Pepe. Dylan is such a dull figure that when he asks Sky why she's interested in him we're not so convinced when she reassures him that she doesn't find him boring. Dylan's sexuality is kept ambiguous, leaving us to wonder if he's actually embracing his queerness or just going through an experimental phase. The implications of the latter reduce the film's actual queer characters to a role adjacent to the that of the "magic negro," existing solely to help the straight protagonist find his feet.

National Anthem review

National Anthem comes alive when it moves away from its one-dimensional characters and allows us to soak up its wider world. The montages of queer rodeos and drag karaoke nights, which feature performers from the real life circuit, only serve to make us wish Gilford had chosen one of these people as his focus rather than the monotone mumbling Dylan. Gilford's photography background is evident in the gorgeous shots of fabulous people set against an even more fabulous SouthWest landscape, but you might come away wishing he had opted for a documentary exploration of this unique world.

National Anthem plays at the 2024 Raindance Film Festival on June 28th.

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