If the global “It Gets Better” campaign has lent a certain familiarity to narratives of gay teenage oppression and self-realization, that’s hardly something to be held against “Misfits”: Rather, Jannik Splidsboel’s delicate documentary works as a progress report on a movement that, in a just world, would be far older news by now. Sensitively following three members of an LGBT youth support group in Tulsa, Okla., as they find their respective paths in a society largely hostile to their alternative identities, Splidsboel’s film touches lightly on community politics, but is most illuminating and uplifting in its portrayal of hard-won domestic battles. Though it’s probably too slight for extensive arthouse distribution, “Misfits” will be warmly welcomed on the gay fest circuit; where it really belongs, but is less likely to be seen, is the high-school classroom.
Though the film is free of narration or overt editorialization, Danish filmmaker Splidsboel brings a clear outsider’s gaze to this portrait of the U.S. heartland — a perspective he shares with his human subjects, many of whom have been made to feel alien within their own society. In its quiet, considered distance, “Misfits” bears a distinct resemblance to another recent Danish-Swedish documentary, “Pervert Park,” which similarly scrutinized American moral and class structures in relation to perceived deviants. Though “Misfits” spouts no anti-conservative rhetoric, Henrik Bohn Ipsen’s serenely perceptive camera lets the dimmest right-wing bigots identify themselves: He and Splidsboel can’t resist silently lingering on one anti-gay protester’s misspelled banner imploring onlookers to “Remember Sodom and Gomarrha.”
Though the film prefaces such images with a description of Tulsa as “the buckle of the Bible Belt,” its depiction of the relationship between the church and LGBT teens is a constructive one. As the filmmakers sit quietly in on group therapy sessions at the city’s OpenArms Youth Project, one of the most poignant observations to emerge is how many of these kids have retained their Christian faith despite the unwelcoming gestures of their religious community. That includes the three principal subjects of “Misfits”: Ben, an outgoing gay 19-year-old with his sights set on a new life in Austin; Larissa, a 17-year-old lesbian experimenting with her gender; and soft-spoken 16-year-old D, a bisexual abuse victim who seems far older than his years.
Though their sexual identities cover a broad spectrum, “Misfits” thankfully avoids treating these individuals as human case studies for a broader social essay, operating instead as a diverse, three-headed character study; what it intelligently highlights is that the “gay” demographic unilaterally demonized by the extreme right is a composite one. Still, while Ben, Larissa and D each get ample screen time to share their affecting testimonies and day-to-day trials with viewers, it’s not just sheer force of personality that seemingly tips the spotlight in Ben’s favor: The film’s liveliest, most compelling material centers on him and his immediate family, who are generously candid with their own reflections on living with, and learning to embrace, his sexuality. Most touching of all is Ben’s close relationship with his straight older brother Gage, whose tearful recollection of his former homophobia is an emotional centerpiece that the film arguably gives away a little too early.
D and Larissa each nevertheless get their own heart-clutching moments, the former in wordless sequences that detail his modest but carefully managed home life; Splidsboel has a keen, compassionate eye for revealing household details, whether it’s a worn exercise bar in a doorway or an uncleared cereal box on a kitchen counter. Amid this sparse realism, meanwhile, Larissa is gifted a stray moment of heightened romantic ecstasy: A rapturous kiss with her girlfriend at a fairylight-spangled Winter Wonderland park, shot and observed with equal tenderness. It’s the cinematic high point of this beautifully composed film, which never leans on careless craft to emphasise its authenticity.