Set in Memphis, “The Delta,” Ira Sachs’ feature directorial debut, is an original but severely flawed gay-themed drama about the complex relationship between a white suburban adolescent and a Vietnamese immigrant. This small-scale, intimate picture displays a fresh cinematic voice, but suffers from narrative problems and ultra-modest tech credits that will damage its theatrical prospects, possibly limiting its showing to the gay and regional festival circuits.
Sachs, who has made a number of interesting shorts (“Vaudeville,” “Lady”), has written and directed a personal drama that nicely captures its specific context, Memphis’ provincial gay life. In the first, highly impressive scene, Lincoln Bloom (Shayne Gray), a product of an affluent Jewish family, is cruising in his car. It’s obvious that the 17-year-old boy is in the process of coming out, not yet comfortable with his emerging gay identity.
In one of his nightly escapades, Lincoln meets and befriends Minh Nguyen (Thang Chan), a Vietnamese immigrant who calls himself John, making every effort possible to assimilate in the new but hostile surroundings. A tentative though decidedly asymmetric relationship evolves, with awkward conversations and occasional sex between the two men. In the yarn’s centerpiece, Lincoln and John run away together down the Mississippi River on a boat that belongs to the former’s father.
Sachs juxtaposes effectively the duo’s divergent physical and social milieus: Lincoln’s Jewish suburban life and John’s struggling, inherently insecure immigrant reality. Uncertain of his orientation, Lincoln spends time with his high school buddies and even courts Monica (Rachel Zan Huss), while at the same time letting himself be tempted in hotels by older men from out of town. Isolated and alienated due to his dark skin and ethnic background, John socializes in cheap Vietnamese bars and pool halls.
Sachs commits a major error by deciding to center on Lincoln’s character, for John is a far more interesting, complex and disturbing personality. A number of revelations about John’s past (including the fact that his father was a black American stationed in Vietnam) highlight his underclass existence and the kind of discrimination faced by many Third World immigrants in the U.S. And if the interactional scenes between the two youngsters are credibly written and nicely executed, a climax that ends in a senselessly violent murder is overtly Freudian and excessively melodramatic, negating the low-key, authentic mood of the rest of the picture.
The ending, which shows no results or growth emanating from the bond between the two young men, doesn’t ring true and leaves the impression that the scripter didn’t know how to resolve his tale. Still, within these structural limitations, the natural acting of Thang Chan, who is playing a somewhat mysterious, not entirely sympathetic figure, commands viewers’ attention and compensates for the extremely low-budget production values of the 16mm-shot film.