A self-absorbed Ivy Leaguer leaves Yale and heads West to find himself, instead finding God and a whole bunch of nutty salt-of-the-earth types in “C.O.G.” The source material may be David Sedaris (this marks the first time the essayist has allowed one of his pieces to be adapted), but the tone couldn’t be more Kyle Patrick Alvarez, who once again steers auds to some gloriously uncomfortable places, progressing far beyond debut “Easier With Practice.” The Sedaris angle should be a magnet for NPR listeners and queer/liberal/college auds, spelling sleeper success for a distrib willing to stir things up a little.
Channeling a rather more caustic, hard-R version of Sedaris from the get-go, Alvarez begins, as the essay does, on the bus to Oregon, as preppy David (Jonathan Groff) endures the humiliations of being among heathens. Hoping to connect with his inner Steinbeck — and determined to suppress his inner homosexual — David takes a job harvesting apples, reinventing himself as “Samuel” among a mostly Mexican workforce not at all amused by the dilettante in their midst.
Samuel’s brush with the common man offers ample opportunity for physical comedy, and Groff juggles everything from pratfalls to deadpan disbelief, paving the way for the far more serious — and infinitely trickier — emotional gymnastics ahead. Opting for dialogue over narration, Alvarez needs a star whom auds can easily read, and Groff has the gift, earning instant identification even early on, when the character is at his most arrogant, and taking it progressively deeper as his personal tests intensify.
Sent into town on a demeaning errand by the foreman (a hilariously surly Dean Stockwell), Samuel meets a haggard-looking Evangelical, Jon (Denis O’Hare), who demands to know whether he considers himself a “C.O.G.” (or “child of God”). Lately, there’s barely room for “Samuel,” much less Jesus Christ, in David’s life, and he politely declines salvation for the time being. Instead, he accepts a job at an apple-processing plant, which comes with the bonus of a flirty forklift operator named Curly (Corey Stoll, treading the line between blue-collar stud and back-alley rapist).
At this point, Alvarez feels the need to slightly embellish Sedaris’ essay: Pic gives the character more backstory and suggests that the trip is a homecoming of sorts for the still-closeted David, inventing several scenes in which he calls his mom (who clearly hasn’t taken well to the news) to let her know he’s in the area. As for the location itself, the production benefits enormously by shooting in Portland and Fort Hood, Ore., adding texture to a project so dependent on authenticity.
When things go sour with Curly, Samuel feels he has no choice but to call Jon, who’s glad to have a potential convert. Though Samuel is no fan of the Bible (his gripe? “It’s poorly written,” he quips), he does his best while staying under Jon’s roof to take all the prayer and proselytizing seriously — as does the film, which by this point has evolved from satire (characterized by disarming happy-slappy music) to more ambiguous, soul-searching terrain.
Meeting with an ex-girlfriend (Troian Bellisario) early in the film, the David/Samuel character corrects her use of the world “sadomasochism,” suggesting that his willingness to take buses, pick apples and so forth qualifies as plain old masochism. That may be true of Sedaris, but there’s a bit of the sadist in Alvarez, who likes to make his audiences squirm, and the way he handles the film’s conflicting temptations — Christianity and homosexuality — should do the trick.
Though political correctness isn’t on the agenda, one thing is clear: In a film where the protagonist is constantly being forced to re-evaluate the belittling stereotypes he holds of others (be they immigrants, churchgoers, factory workers, etc.), there’s no room to propagate the reductive characterizations others have of gays. It’s what makes the film’s final scene, of compromised self-acceptance, feel so heartbreaking.