Evoking comparisons to “Midnight Cowboy,” Scott Silver’s “johns” sets a lyrical if downbeat tale of male friendship against the seedy world of prostitution on L.A.’s Santa Monica Boulevard. Although pic’s take on this world skirts the crucial and pervasive factor of drug addiction, and latter sections lack drive, the skillful direction and, especially, superb work by leads David Arquette and Lukas Haas make this a debut that should catch the attention of critics and arthouse auds.
Transpiring on the day before Christmas, story opens with young hustler John (Arquette) waking up outdoors to discover that his cherished sneakers, which serve as his bank as well as good luck charm, have been stolen. Since the next day is his birthday and he planned to use his savings to treat himself to a night in a posh hotel, he takes the loss particularly hard and immediately sets out in search of business to replenish his cash reserves.
John has the added problem of being pursued by an angry drug dealer to whom he owes $ 300 for dope he’s sold on consignment. As encounters with other young hustlers indicate, the holiday slowdown makes things tough all over.
After a quickie with a guy on his way to work, John meets up with his pal Donner (Haas), a teen hustler who’s bruised thanks to a “date” gone bad. The two young men have obvious affinities, but their banter also establishes some important differences.
While John’s alone in the world, and apparently heterosexual, Donner became estranged from his wealthy family after his dad rejected him for being gay.
Donner is now clearly in love with his older friend, and though his feelings aren’t reciprocated, he dreams of solidifying their relationship by persuading John to join him in leaving L.A. and seeking work in the Midwest. Meanwhile, he’s ready to turn tricks to help John satisfy his birthday wish and pay off his drug debt.
While pic’s overall portrayal of the hustler milieu mixes surface realism with an undercurrent of romanticization, tale’s early parts are winningly spiced with humorous moments, including one in which Donner is “solicited” by a tourist family that only wants a photo taken, and another when John tries to get a loan from a lustful former client (drolly played by Elliott Gould).
Things grow gloomy as circumstances begin to close in on John and Donner, and tale’s latter sections lack the spark of what came before, largely because the story’s tragic arc plays out what the viewer has already learned.
Still, the central figures remain compelling throughout, due to two exceptionally strong and well-meshed performances. Haas brings a sweetness and skittish vulnerability to Donner. But pic’s revelation is Arquette, who commands attention with his charismatic yet subtle and searching incarnation of a strong-willed loner undone by his life’s contradictions. The performance is both appealing and authoritative, firmly establishing the young actor’s potential as a leading man.
Silver’s adroit work with his cast is matched by an assured visual sense, and “johns” benefits enormously from the richly textured images that cinematographer Tom Richmond achieved on a low-budget, location-heavy shoot. Other tech credits are similarly topnotch.