While the quality of the four films that comprise "Boys to Men" varies, none is ever boring. Indeed, at five to 25 minutes apiece, they aren't long enough to allow any self-indulgence to creep in. Presented in the chronological order of the age of their characters -- from teenage boys to aging men -- the shorts will no doubt find a responsive chord with gay viewers, but may leave some straight audience members twitching uncomfortably in their seats.
Phillip Bartell's Crush offers up a sweet opener about a teenager from "rural, rural Illinois" finding acceptance where he least expects it. Sixteen years old and just sexually awakening, Robbie has bonded with 12-year-old Tina over TV and bubble gum music. As is typical of many gay teens, he prefers to stay with his female friend rather than duke it out with boys playing sports. But Tina develops a crush on Robbie. When his journal falls open and Tina sees a male pinup inside, Robbie runs in embarrassment. Robbie's seeming rejection and the loss of his companionship pain Tina more than her realization that he's gay.
What ensues could be straight out of a network sitcom, but in this writer/director's nimble hands it works surprisingly well. Despite what might seem like a "this could never happen" denouement, we buy into it, both entertained and convinced. Much of the credit for the palpability of ensuing events lies with the natural performances of the young actors, particularly Ema A. Tuennerman as the engaging Tina.
The other shorts engage in different ways. The Mountain King, written and directed by Duncan Tucker, leaves the boys of Crush behind: This is full-tilt adult stuff. Although financed out-of-pocket and filmed with a mini-digital video camera, the result never looks cheap. In fact, it's reminiscent of the films of John Cassavetes. The two-character story follows the emotions that transpire when a persuasive street hustler intrudes on a closeted man's quiet day at the beach. (Both of them are nameless.)
In a short time it becomes clear to the man that this friendly, full-of-life guy is a hustler. But one thing follows another, and they end up having sex. Later, the man finds himself full of shame: He's ready to dart off, wanting to deny what compelled him to have sex and to forget that he thoroughly enjoyed himself. But our hustler has more than street smarts; the man sees the hustler as filled with qualities he wished he had. He is seduced. He is taken. But he is not complaining.
The two actors, John Sloan and Paul Dawson, are well cast as straight man and hustler, respectively. The film's success lies as much in their fitness for the parts as in the naturalness of their dialogue. The film's rising tension -- heightened by tight editing and cinematography -- creates a compelling drama that keeps us riveted until the switch ending.
Dan Castle's ...lost is not so much a short film as a scene. Castle says he made the film as a wake-up call to all the men having unsafe sexual encounters. In the pic, two guys are naked in bed, having sex. We watch as they do it. They finish. One man gets up, uses the bathroom, gets dressed, says, "Goodbye, see ya 'round," and leaves. The other man knows he will never see the guy again. He looks at the clock and then reaches underneath the bed for a pill bottle. It's time for him to take his HIV medicine. The End. Without any setup or commentary, the effectiveness of the message might be lost on many viewers.
The final film, The Confession, follows two lovers of many years. Now old and set in their ways, they obviously love each other, but the chronic illness of one has taken a toll on their relationship. When Joseph (Bert Kraemer) asks Caesar (Tom Fitzpatrick) to get a priest, Caesar flips out. Justifiably angry about the rejection of homosexuals by the Catholic Church, he refuses to honor the request, even though it comes from a dying man he loves. Written and directed by Carl Pfirman, The Confession takes on issues of faith and sexuality while offering a rare honorable depiction of an elderly gay people. How the recalcitrant Caesar comes to terms with Joseph's need for final absolution says much about love and commitment. If the film ultimately does not endear all of us -- we don't have time to get to know the characters -- it still offers enough inspiration to get us out of the theater with something to think about.