Unrequited gay love haunts an Upper East Side brat pack in Joey Kuhn's impressively polished but unevenly satisfying debut feature.
The privileged Manhattan milieu is reminiscent of early Whit Stillman, but the storyline is closer to “The Line of Beauty” or “Brideshead Revisited” — surely it’s no accident that the most troubled character here is named Sebastian — in “Those People.” Joey Kuhn’s feature debut is impressively polished, but its burnished surface is more highly worked than the unevenly satisfying drama beneath. This tale of unrequited love among young denizens of the Upper East Side should nonetheless prove a popular item on the gay fest circuit, with niche home format sales assured and limited theatrical exposure a possibility.
Charlie (Jonathan Gordon) is finishing art school, but he seems primarily occupied as usual with the needs of longtime best friend Sebastian (Jason Ralph), the fulcrum of a clique that also includes Ursula (Britt Lower), London (Meghann Fahy) and “token straight boy” Wyatt (Chris Conroy). Sebastian is a reckless party boy who’s all alone in his family’s townhouse: His father, “the most hated man in New York,” is now in prison due to some Bernie Madoff-like financial skullduggery, and his mother has simply abandoned them both in the wake of the scandal. There’s little public sympathy for this poor little rich boy, as it’s suspected he knew about Dad’s swindling misdeeds all along (and, in fact, he did).
Charlie is so besotted with his charismatic if manipulative pal that when he’s assigned to paint a self-portrait, he does yet another portrait of the handsome Sebastian instead. The latter is all too aware of this blind devotion, which he exploits by constantly, flirtatiously raising Charlie’s hopes, then pulling back short of physical engagement. Though no one else thinks it’s a good idea, Charlie agrees to move in with his friend in this hour of need. But their somewhat unhealthy mutual dependency is shaken when Charlie meets handsome older pianist Tim (Haaz Sleiman, “The Visitor”), a Lebanese emigre who’s as upfront in his declarations of affection as Sebastian is exasperatingly elusive. Needless to say, Sebastian is displeased by no longer being the sole object of Charlie’s affections, and his jealous sulks soon border on self-destruction.
Everybody here seems to have father-abandonment issues. But the pathos that should underlie this world of privilege isn’t as vivid as the rather bratty, arch, self-satisfied surface of the protagonists’ insular society. They’re not half so clever or adorable as they (and Kuhn) seem to think they are: Sebastian and Charlie’s ritual of speed-reciting Gilbert & Sullivan’s “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” from “The Pirates of Penzance” is an affectation that gets very old, very fast.
Nor is it awfully clear why the confident, mature Tim would be so enamored with the fey Charlie, who, in Gordon’s overly coltish performance, has a tendency to giggle and yelp at the least excitement. Ralph manages to suggest greater depth to the floundering Sebastian, but the script provides only limited help. It’s too bad there aren’t more meaningful scenes like the late one in which he finally goes to visit his father (Daniel Gerroll) in prison, and their brief, unpleasant interaction reveals just how a young man with so much in his favor might have turned out at once spoiled, directionless and insecure.
Taking its cue from the expensively tasteful old-money look of Sebastian’s home, the pic is handsomely turned on all tech and design fronts, particularly Leonardo D’Antoni’s widescreen lensing, which captures Manhattan at its glamorous autumnal best.