The only thematic novelty in “Defying Gravity,” John Keitel’s modestly agreeable feature directorial debut, is that its coming-out story takes place at a university frat house. Nonetheless, made with a good deal of charm, this aptly titled drama is a likely bet for theatrical release and is bound to please gay men, particularly young ones. Pic should easily travel the global gay festival circuit.
The endearingly naive “Defying Gravity” is undoubtedly a personal film; the writer-director is close in age to his main characters, half a dozen white students sharing a frat house on an unnamed campus (pic was shot at USC, where Keitel was a graduate film student).
Affable and cute, Griff (Daniel Chilson), the ultimate frat boy, spends a hot night with frat brother Pete (Don Handfield), who lives off-campus. But he can’t face the notion — and the responsibility — that he’s gay, still continuing a flirtatious affair with Gretchen (Nicki Lynn), a fetching sorority girl who doesn’t excite him much. Griff’s best friend, the very straight Todd (Niklaus Lange), is also unaware of his buddy’s emerging sexual orientation, though he senses that their relationship is changing.
An argument one night between Pete and Griff in a West Hollywood coffee shop ends badly. Unbeknownst to Griff, later that night, Pete becomes a victim of gay-bashing that sends him to the hospital. Griff finds out about the incident from a TV news report, and recalls seeing a suspicious-looking truck following Pete into a dark alley.
Rest of the overly familiar drama is devoted to Griff’s dual dilemma of whether to report the case to the police (a theme used in numerous youth movies, most recently in “All Over Me”) and put himself on the line, and when to tell Todd his “secret.” The melodramatic plot gets some necessary tension when it becomes clear that members of Griff’s frat house were involved in the bashing, which results in a moralistic confrontation, eventually forcing him to begin a new, more mature life on his own.
What helps this meller overcome its stock situations is a gallery of credible and positive characters. Prominent among them is Denetra (Linna Carter), Griff’s African-American classmate, who’s confused about her own sexuality and becomes a trusted confidante during his moral crisis.Todd is a more sensitive and understanding straight buddy than was the norm in most gay movies until the 1990s.
Low-budget pic, reportedly shot in only 13 days, is directed by Keitel with a good measure of honesty and taste. There are no great performances (three lead thesps are no more than OK), but overall the cast is handsome and appealing. Young gay men will relate to the heartfelt tale, whereas older ones will grin with deja vu, particularly when Griff tries to convince himself that his sexual attraction to men “is only a phase.”