Slamdance Grand Prize winner “Surrender Dorothy” is a disturbing, hard-edged tale of physical abuse and sexual aberration that pulls no punches. The graphic, psychologically wrenching film — shot in black-and-white — is decidedly for niche tastes. Nonetheless, the assurance of the storytelling and indelible performances make this a distinctive, compelling story with specialized potential that heralds an exciting young talent in Kevin DiNovis.
Produced independently in Philadelphia, film focuses on two men who are drawn together by need and circumstance. Trevor (Peter Pryor) works at a dead-end job at an upscale restaurant. Lanh (DiNovis) is a heroin addict living on his wiles and whatever he can scam or steal.
Having robbed a dealer, Lanh almost literally bumps into Trevor, who takes pity on the desperate man and offers him shelter. But even if the initial act was generously motivated, the relationship evolves into a twisted master-servant dynamic. Hanging out safety and drugs as carrots, Trevor manipulates and exploits his new-found roommate into becoming “Dorothy,” part goddess, part victim and a total creation (in drag) of his warped sense of a “normal” heterosexual relationship.
What separates “Surrender Dorothy” from recent gender-bender fare is that sexual issues take a back seat to the examination of power and control. Spiritually, its antecedents are Genet’s “The Maids” and Pinter’s “The Servant,” though clearly the new film isn’t interested in flipping the traditional power roles to favor the subservient character.
Trevor is a monster of a particular stripe. He considers himself a heterosexual, but is so paralyzed by encounters with the opposite sex that he can’t even respond. Anger and physical abuse are his outlets, and in Lanh/Dorothy he has complete control of the situation, allowing himself to be compassionate or vengeful as the mood suits him. His charge learns quickly that it’s possible to get back at his keeper, but that he can never dominate because of his various dependencies.
While rife with hot-button subjects and exploitation elements, the picture’s biggest asset is its subtlety. The tale creeps under the skin as the true horror of the situation unfolds. Jonathan Kovel’s evocative monochromatic images and the stark, stage-like decor from Jessica Anne Gurani lend a sense of claustrophobia that intensifies the drama.
The picture could well be a theater piece, but DiNovis has a true sense of how to make the material work for the screen. While he gives himself the showier role of the drug-dependent cross-dresser, it’s really Pryor who anchors the story. Pryor’s performance runs the spectrum of emotions, yet is centered in the character’s quieter moments. It is a singular acting achievement.