The lure of better living through chemistry holds many traps in John Baumgartner’s taut and well-observed debut feature, “Hard Pill,” a provocative drama about an unhappy gay man who experiments with medicine designed to alter his sexual inclinations. Pic approaches each of its conflicting characters with sensitivity, open to arguments on both sides of the makeover question. Polemically hot film should work up a lather in fests before a bright-eyed distrib grabs it for good runs in key urban centers, and even better ancillary.
Although he’s surrounded by a chummy group of co-workers, Tim (Jonathan Slavin) is morose and desperately short of love. The best he can hope for are occasional quickies with Don (Mike Begovich), who’s bisexual and married, while the new guy at the office (Jason Bushman’s Matt) turns out to have a g.f. And though flamboyant, fun-loving and serially promiscuous friend Joey (Scotch Ellis Loring) means well, taking Tim out on the town only makes him feel like an ugly duckling intimidated by so many Charles Atlas types.
This careful laying out of Tim’s unfulfilling life lends credibility to his drastic decision to serve as a guinea pig for a new pill designed to turn gay men hetero. (Though he overdoes the device, Baumgartner cleverly underlines human gradation of sexuality by introducing each character with a graphic including his name and tendencies on a heterosexual-to-homosexual scale.)
Joey feels betrayed by the news, believing that Tim is helping the anti-gay cause, but Tim seems to respond well to the treatment: Quickly, he’s jumping the bones of sweet, overweight co-worker and neighbor Sally (Susan Slome). Since the treatment includes avoiding emotional involvement with a particular women right away, Tim backs away from Sally — adding to his increasingly awkward position at the office. Yet his new raging hormones drive him toward Tanya (Jennifer Elise Cox), a nice gal who has no idea about Tim’s past.
Baumgartner’s speculative fiction, set in what could be the day after tomorrow, is a cautionary one. Tim ultimately realizes a pill can’t separate him from his old life, and old friends. Pic’s wilder speculations are mostly kept muffled in the interest of thoughtful drama involving good people who find themselves in an untenable situation.
The doe-eyed Slavin’s performance is full of repressed emotions, which eventually burst with geyser-like intensity. Loring, Slome, Begovich, Cox and Bushman bring a wide range of colors and moods as they circle Tim.
Lensing (also by Baumgartner) is clean and as clear-eyed as the script, and lack of pretension in the filmmaking is an enormous asset. Pic has an intuitive grasp, much like Miranda July’s “You and Me and Everyone We Know,” of how people in Los Angeles actually live, while Mike Petrone’s piano-based underscore provides a gentle touch.