There can be a paradoxically public intimacy to YouTube culture: an artificial sense of personal connection forged by those everyday video updates, so many of which feign a diaristic, confessional tone that can both alleviate and prey on loneliness among those watching. It’s a needling, fascinating subject for psychodrama, so all credit to candidly queer American filmmaker Travis Mathews for identifying its complex potential in “Discreet” — a story of a childhood abuse victim whose fixation with a well-meaning video blogger only confuses his connection to the real world. The result, unfortunately, is his least persuasive feature to date. Opaque and formally ungainly, this itchy meditation on a host of contemporary social ills offers audiences a vividly, deliberately ugly worldview, but finally makes for hollow viewing.
If not all the film’s ideas and enquiries seem quite to have escaped its own head, that shouldn’t hinder it on the experimentally-inclined LGBT festival circuit following its Berlinale Panorama premiere. Distributors, however, will find it a significantly less commercial proposition than Mathews’ James Franco collaboration “Interior. Leather. Bar.,” itself no golden ticket. Whatever its present-day degree of exposure, “Discreet” could eventually make for an intriguing time-capsule piece: Mathews has made perhaps the first queer film to directly address the subject of alt-right influence on outsider identity in middle America, complete with visible Trump-Pence campaign signs to date proceedings precisely.
For gay twentysomething drifter Alex (Jonny Mars), the voices of two very different cultural spheres prove equally influential on him, to disorienting, finally deleterious effect. In one ear is the aggressive Conservative invective of the pro-Trump lobby, fed to him via strident far-right talk radio, encouraging his most violent, reactionary attempts at self-assertion. In the other is the peaceable New Age self-help counsel of minor YouTube sensation Mandy (Atsuko Okatsuka), whose videos advocate finding solace in the routines and rhythms of the everyday. (A static, continuous shot of bacon gently popping and sizzling in a skillet appears to be a particular hit, and becomes one of Mathews’ more whimsical motifs; audiences are hereby advised to have breakfast before viewing.)
Eager to impress Mandy and meet her at her home in (where else?) Portland, Alex sets about making his own video art — though it soon becomes clear that the mentally unbalanced young man has a very different idea of what counts as therapeutic. Having recently returned to his drab Texan hometown to confront the trauma of his youth, he unexpectedly comes into contact with his childhood abuser, only to find the monster depleted and disabled; victim assumes the role of carer, though the possibility of retribution bristles throughout like so much radio static. With this tension at its spine, “Discreet” vaguely assumes the form of a thriller, but never accumulates much urgency, while Mars’ dour performance holds viewers strictly at arm’s length. Side excursions into his joylessly expressed sexuality — enacted in edge-of-town porn shops and Craigslist-negotiated motel meets — do little to unlock the puzzle of Alex himself.
The further the character goes off the deep end, meanwhile, the further Mathews’ spare script gets from its most exciting lines of social and political investigation. Mandy, in particular, is never a fully plausible embodiment of the millennial liberal movement that at once encourages and cruelly spurns the protagonist’s difference — not least because the film’s bare-bones digital production values ironically don’t quite evoke the scrappy aesthetic of YouTube content. Perhaps what seems most ill-thought and incomplete in “Discreet” aptly reflects the inchoate identity it seeks to portray: By accident, design or both, it’s an agitating watch.