'National Anthem' - Queer patriotism flies its own flag

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday July 9, 2024
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Charlie Plummer and Mason Alexander Park in 'National Anthem' (photo: Variance Films)
Charlie Plummer and Mason Alexander Park in 'National Anthem' (photo: Variance Films)

With anti-drag and anti-trans legislation spreading throughout the country at an all-time high, the new film "National Anthem" comes at an opportune moment, bringing much needed fresh air in a story about sexual outsiders finding sanctuary among themselves. Or as director Luke Gilford aptly summarizes his work, "We find ourselves when we are seen by others."

Gilford, who grew up in the Professional Rodeo Cowboy's Association with his father, in 2020 published his photography monograph comprising 100 portraits documenting America's LGBTQ rodeo subculture. "I felt not just a sense of acceptance, but the electric charge of belonging," he said.

He then co-wrote this movie to offshoot these feelings, radicalizing and making the very familiar Western genre inclusive, expanding what it means to be an American and queer, and perhaps inducing seizures in right-wing zealots.

Charlie Plummer in 'National Anthem' (photo: Variance Films)  

Chosen family
Dylan (Charlie Plummer) is an introverted 21-year-old unskilled day laborer on construction and ranch jobs in rural New Mexico. His father long gone, he's the main breadwinner and de facto father figure of the family.

His alcoholic single hairdresser mother Fiona (Robin Lively) pays more attention to the random men she brings home than her children, including his adoring much younger brother Cassidy (Joey DeLeon). Dylan's dream is to buy an RV so he can escape his claustrophobic existence.

Lining up with other migrant workers, Dylan starts working at The House of Splendor, a dude ranch like no other. It's run by Pepe (Rene Rosado) and flirty trans Sky (Eve Lindley), a skilled barrel racer.

The chosen family residents there are other gay and trans people, all queer rodeo performers, with gay men gardening in pink thongs, skinny-dipping naked in a lake, or riding horseback in shimmering gowns. Carrie (Mason Alexander Park) is the nonbinary drag queen who acts as the den mother. "Drag is a way for me to show up for myself," she declares.

Dylan develops a crush on the free-spirited Sky, even masturbating to a fantasy image of her decked out in an American flag outfit. She's in an open, polyamorous relationship with Pepe. After imbibing mushroom tea, they fall into a sensual threesome, but Pepe feels threatened by the ever-closer connection between Dylan and Sky.

Dylan, who thinks he's boring, wonders why Sky is interested in him, to which she replies. "I don't think you're boring. You just haven't met your people yet."

The wide-open space, geographically and emotionally, allows Dylan to not only find community but explore his sexual identity and discover his true nature. He finds a real sense of belonging, because growing up he didn't sense he fit in anywhere.

He even feels safe to ride a bull for the first time and put on blue eyeliner makeup, a cheap wig, and make his sexy drag debut lip-synching Melissa Etheridge's "I'm the Only One." Both acts are brave, taking him out of his comfort zone.

He also brings Cassidy to this queer rural paradise and even he wants to wear a dress. When Cassidy meets Carrie, he naively asks, "Are you a girl or a boy?" Smiling, Carrie answers, "Neither," to which Cassidy says, "Cool!" Even a spontaneous trip to Wal-Mart by the 'family' seems adventurous and bold.

Languid scenes
The screenplay is scant though non-pandering and non-strident. This is a film with its carefree pacing and languid scenes, that broadcasts its message through atmospherics, aided enormously by the visual lyricism of Katelin Arizmendi's ("Dune") cinematography.

She invigorates sprawling barren desert landscapes with almost mesmerizing breathtaking sunny hues and yearning, intimate closeups of the character's facial expressions, taking advantage of the Southwestern natural light.

One splendid sequence is a Black drag queen in sequined gown and ten-gallon hat singing an a cappella rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," beautifully rendered by D'Angelo Lacy. This film could easily have lapsed into a parody of hetero-cowboy machismo, but instead this is a safe space for those victimized by toxic masculinity.

Charlie Plummer in 'National Anthem'  

Yes, there's been rejection and heartbreak, but there's joy and resiliency, echoing President Biden's mantra after his disastrous debate performance, "When you get down, you get back up!"

There's a sense of wonder and gratitude that this is a welcoming, free-thinking subculture embodied with nonjudgmental warmth, that they've finally arrived home, a queer space free from prejudices and strict boundaries. Gilford has great affection and compassion for all his characters.

Plummer has been at the point of stardom a few times previously (i.e. Andrew Haigh's "Lean on Pete"), but if there's any justice, this performance should make him a star in the androgynous mold of Timothy Chalamet. The role in lesser hands would be bland, but he invests it with vulnerability and an effervescence that celebrates his newfound liberation and future possibilities.

Plummer has a magnetic chemistry with Lindley ("Bros") who is a charismatic Earth Mother force of nature and possesses an infectious generosity of spirit, a hypnotic air of mystery, and soulfulness. Park, in just a handful of scenes, steals the picture, giving unconditional acceptance and pep talks to Dylan.

What is so amazing about this film is that it comes across as both traditional and progressive, turning the Western and Americana topsy turvy. If only rural America could be as inclusive and life-affirming as The House of Splendor. The film seems to disrupt all the binaries that seem to separate us from one another and we appreciate everyone's journey of finding their unique American dream in their search to live life to its fullest, a vision of what America could become.

'National Anthem' opens in theaters July 12.

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