One of the boldest and most provocative entries in this year’s Sundance competition, “Urbania,” Jon Shear’s impressive feature directorial debut, is a darkly intriguing drama that probes the very nature of love and the lasting effects of loss. Based on Daniel Reitz’s play “Urban Folk Tales,” this densely layered, deeply felt film dissects the meaning of sexual orientation for a small group of individuals as they struggle to live a decent, fulfilling life in metropolitan America. Though several of the major characters are gay, which makes pic is a likely candidate for gay patrons and the global gay festival circuit, film’s scope and ambition are broad enough to appeal to any contempo urban dweller looking for challenging fare.
At a time when most movies about gays have gotten softer, adopting or simply imitating established Hollywood formulas (particularly screwball and romantic comedy), “Urbania” is an unabashedly political film that recalls the cycle of queer cinema in the early 1990s (“Poison,” “The Living End,” “Swoon”). The goal of queer cinema is to bring established sexual and gender categories to a crisis point by exposing their limitations; “Urbania” earns the label through its radical position on gender, desire and sexuality.
The lines separating past and present, fact and fiction, love and hate, and, above all, gay and straight, are blurred in Shear’s film. Its intricately plotted narrative not only requires viewers’ attention but forces them to examine their sexual orientation and the way they live. Story unfolds as a puzzle in which bits and pieces of info are slowly revealed, building to a harrowing denouement.
Charlie (Dan Futterman) is an attractive young man who has lost control over his life. Restless, anxious and always on edge, he wanders around downtown Manhattan like a ghost seeking action, entertainment and peace of mind. Through flashbacks, it’s revealed that Charlie has lost his longtime companion, Chris (Matt Keeslar), in a violent incident that has had traumatic effects on him.
Alone in his apartment, he listens to the lovemaking of his upstairs neighbors (Bill Sage and Megan Dodds), which proves both irritating and sexually stimulating. A later encounter with this straight couple in the local bar, where many of pic’s scenes are set, begins peacefully but ends violently when the trio engage in a discussion of openly sexual public behavior.
Early on, Charlie notices a mysterious, tattooed stranger (Samuel Ball) at a distance, and the two exchange looks. From then on, story assumes the structure of a nightmarish journey, as Charlie travels the city in a desperate effort to repeat his chance encounter. Pic’s shape recalls Scorsese’s “After Hours,” with Charlie crossing paths with a dozen bizarre characters, each trying to demonstrate a connection to him via eerie stories.
Shear and Reitz enrich the story’s central thread with a darkly humorous layer exploring the nature of storytelling and with a more existential layer that has to do with the universal need to regain control over one’s life. First layer is expressed in the recurrent line “Hear any good stories lately?” In this vein, German actress Barbara Sukowa has a terrific cameo in which she recounts a noirish tale about a bizarre sexual interlude in a bar’s restroom.
Over the course of an endless, painful night, Charlie encounters Brett (Alan Cumming), a friend who has a crush on him; a stuttering homeless man (Lothaire Bluteau); and a woman who seems to step directly out of Hitchcock’s “Rear Window ,” overly anxious about her poodle getting sick in the rain. Though each raconteur insists, “I’ve got a story, and this one really happened,” we are never sure where fantasy ends and reality begins.
The drama’s more philosophical dimensions, which take center stage in the film’s last reel — and its most disturbing chapter — depict Charlie’s efforts to regain power and execute justice through revenge against those responsible for his misery. Incidents of gay-bashing and gay counterattacks have appeared in several recent films, but never have these issues been so well integrated into the narrative and so crucial to the characters’ transformation.
Helmer Shear effectively varies the mood and makes absorbing transitions from one locale to another. Shot in Super 16 by Shane Kelly, “Urbania” boasts the kind of color saturation and heightened grainy look that fit its surreal nature. Editing (of more than 1,500 shots) and Marc Anthony Thompson’s score contribute immeasurably to the film’s macabre atmosphere.
Ultimately, pic’s impact depends on Futterman, whose strong performance provides the necessary bridge among the disparate characters, and helps the deliberately fractured narrative assumes coherence. Assisted by a terrific ensemble, Futterman illustrates the frightening, transcendent and hallucinatory aspects of the loss of love and control in a concrete, powerful manner seldom seen onscreen.