I approached this week’s Letter Game entry as a sort of challenge. Legendary critic Roger Ebert famously stopped viewing the low-budget pro-gay indie Tru Loved after the 8:05 mark and submitted his review, declaring the film to be “on about the same level as a not especially good high school play.” This decision set off a firestorm of controversy, or rather an honest conversation about the role of the critic and how mean-spirited it is to pick on a smaller film in such a way. For the record, I hold no such compunctions – as evidenced by my regular skewering of the dregs that Christian cinema has to offer. In fact, Ebert himself makes such a comparison, referring to Tru Loved in a longer review (after having seen the film in its entirety) as a “simplistic True Believer film”. Indeed, much like its religious counterparts, the film takes its message of acceptance to extreme levels, so much that practically everybody in the film is gay – closeted or otherwise – and the only audience liable to tune in is one so enthralled by the message that they are inured to the one-note characters. Either that, or viewers like myself who seek it out as a cultural oddity or guilty pleasure of the “so bad it’s good” variety.
It really is so bad. I hate to give it away so quickly, but my favorite moment comes when a fiercely heterosexual football player looks to a gay classmate and asks, “Do you want to dance?” His classmate asks, incredulously, if the request was meant for him. The football player responds: “No, I meant everybody, in general, dance.” It’s so awkward and weird that it’s kind of wonderful. That’s a good way to describe the bulk of the film, actually: awkward and weird. It’s a story about a girl who has just moved to a new town and gets made fun of because she is so ugly. Also hurting her chances of gaining acceptance is the true rumor that she has two lesbian moms and two gay dads – but they’re so well-adjusted! Heck, they’re almost like normal people! The girl, named Tru (short for Bea Trutoyourself), actually does gain acceptance quite easily after being courted by the quarterback of the football team. As it turns out, unfortunately, he is gay (who isn’t?). He hides behind false bravado and gay-bashing in order to hide his sexuality from his peers and family because their reaction to the news would almost certainly be heaps of scorn.
So Tru has to pretend to be dating Lo, the quarterback, in order to help him save face at his apparently very homophobic high school. It’s incredible that a school called Walt Whitman High would be so anti-gay, honestly. When Tru teams up with an extremely flamboyant classmate to form a Gay-Straight Alliance, she has trouble finding a faculty advisor to support the endeavor because they’re all either staunchly opposed or else afraid of what the association might do to their reputations. The member of the faculty who expresses the strongest reservations against the GSA is the school’s Australian (for some reason?) football coach (Vernon Wells). His vehement anti-gay stance was hilariously over-the-top, making him my favorite character. When his players aren’t practicing good enough (?), he holds up a flyer for the latest GSA meeting and asks if they would all rather be with their ‘boyfriends’ at the meeting. He constantly mutters that the gays had enough shame to hide their sexual orientation in his day, and his nostrils spout smoke when he thinks his players might have been bit by the queer bug. While Lo’s friend Manny is lifting weights under the coach’s supervision, two girls rush in to say that Lo broke up with his girlfriend without a reason. “That clinches it,” they assert, “he’s definitely gay.” As if that weren’t enough, he’s at a lesbian wedding being officiated by Bruce Vilanch right now! The coach grits his teeth, telling Manny to get dressed immediately: we’re crashing a lesbian wedding. Little does he know, that thick Australian accent only makes his bigotry adorable.
I think I’ve given you a pretty good idea of what the content of the film is like, so allow me to return to my initial assessment of the movie as being in the same vein as the Christian films I love so much. Between scenes, the picture and sound quality varies. A few times in the film, the camera dollies upward as a character climbs into a treehouse, at which point the film looks much more professional than it does at any other point. The difference is striking – as is the poor lighting, which leaves many scenes not shot in full daylight looking dim and muddled. As illustrated previously, the line readings and dialogue are often unsettlingly goofy. “Ain’t nobody straighter than me!” Manny brags at one point. Perhaps most damning of all, given the subject matter, is a recreation of the iconic Jets vs. Sharks ballet-off from West Side Story. The scene is a joke – so poorly choreographed that it feels like the whole thing was a last-minute addition.
I haven’t yet mentioned the confused references to “Romeo & Juliet”, have I? It’s an offensively unsubtle bit of symbolism, the gay-friendlies and those that oppose the lifestyle meant to represent the Montagues and Capulets (Monta-gays, am I right?). I hate how movies such as this and Twilight have reduced the thematic elements of this particular Shakespeare play to the overly simplistic “two groups don’t like each other and somebody’s caught in between”. Look, if nobody commits ironic suicide in your movie then you have no business comparing it to Shakespeare. Actually, even more offensive is the way the film sets up that the school is looking for an actor to play Tony in their staging of “West Side Story”, Lo mentions his love of singing a short while later, and the film forgets about this entirely until near the end when it wraps up this EXTREMELY important subplot by – spoiler alert! – naming Lo the actor to play Tony.
Oh, and Jane Lynch has a cameo just because.
Tru Loved is an awful film. It lets the majority of its characters be one-dimensional stereotypes, and though the primary characters are fleshed out more they continue to talk and act in stilted, unbelievable ways. I know I’ve been quoting Ebert incessantly, but his summarization of the film is so succinct that it can’t be beat: “If the film has a future, it will be as camp.” It’s clear now, three years later, that the title is already forgotten (not that it was known by many to begin with). The blame for Tru Loved having been so quickly lost to the dustbin of history does not lie with critics like myself who are doing their duty by panning it. The fault instead lies with the film itself: it’s so bad, but it isn’t any good.