Dir: Jannik Splidsboel. Denmark-Sweden 2015. 74mins
Tulsa, Oklahoma, the so-called ‘Buckle of the Bible Belt’, is – as the opening titles of Misfits inform us – a city with over 4000 churches and only one lesbian and gay youth centre. This facility, the Openarms Youth Project, is the inspiration for Jannik Splidsboel’s engaging documentary, which focuses on three of the Project’s regulars, but also offers a wider perspective on life if you’re young and different in the American heartland.
An eye for urban detail inevitably recalls photographer William Eggleston, although Splidsboel never gratuitously lays on the Americana.
Though not formally mould-breaking, this downbeat but visually stylish essay is an intimate portrait piece with a strong undertow of political commitment. Brief running time will limit theatrical prospects, but Misfits is a must for festivals especially with LGBT and youth agendas, and it offers healthy appeal for online and broadcasting buyers.
Homophobia is established as a given at the start, when we see demonstrators with placards that rage, “Remember Sodom and Gomarrha” [sic]. But – notwithstanding the occasional ranter glimpsed in the street or heard off-screen - the film doesn’t need to bang home this theme, since it emerges as a constant challenge in the lives of the film’s subjects. Benny (19) is a young gay man who is seen having a testy but ultimately tender relationship with his brother Gage, who had originally reacted violently to Benny’s coming out.
Seventeen-year-old lesbian Larissa is seen enjoying downtime with her impish girlfriend, trying on stylised beard make-up, and attending school with a wig over her own close-cropped hair. Perhaps the most idiosyncratic figure of the film’s three subjects is 16-year-old ‘D.’. Seemingly old beyond his years, D. lives alone in austere conditions, is formidably intelligent and adopts a tough street-kid persona, fedoras included. His story involves abuse from his mother and a belated reunion with his dad, who turns out to be far from the monster D. had been led to expect.
There are potent moments of emotional directness; in fact, Misfits suffers slightly from having its most moving scene near the start, as Benny’s family sit together and Gage tearfully confesses his own initial homophobic response to his brother. Benny is certainly the performer of the film, a natural show-off bantering with his supportive mother and clearly devoted to testing Gage’s limits.
Less extrovert altogether is the somewhat diffident Larissa, but we also see her experimenting with self-presentation, not least dressing in female glam for a Project party. She is also at the centre of a genuinely spectacular moment, when she and her girlfriend share a kiss in a multi-coloured tunnel of Christmas lights. As for D, his most telling moment arguably comes when he gets access to a bicycle that will help him look for work – bringing home that the film is dealing not just with sexual misfits, but with sometimes severe economic disadvantage.
Danish director Splidsboel – whose documentaries include How Are You (2011) about artists Elmgreen & Dragset – sometimes manifestly stages scenes, most overtly an in-car conversation between Benny and Gage. The film’s visual craft, including use of heightened colours, places it in a tradition of American realist photography; the subjects could have walked out of the photos of Nan Goldin or Larry Clark, who started his career with a collection devoted to the youth of this same city.
An eye for urban detail inevitably recalls photographer William Eggleston, although Splidsboel never gratuitously lays on the Americana. Splidsboel offers a vivid insight into a harsh aspect of life in the US, but the overall picture, especially when we see the Openarms regulars hanging out together, is of the liberating force of community spirit and solidarity.
Production companies: Sonntag Pictures, Mantaray Film
International sales: Wide House, www.widehouse.org
Producer: Sara Stockmann
Co-producer: Stina Gardell
Cinematography: Henrik Bohn Ipsen
Editor: Mikael Kloster Ebbesen
Music: Mathias Blomdahl