Humpday

(Lynn Shelton, 2009) Humpday is the first mumblecore film to generate serious press. New technology births new art forms, and accessible digital video has encouraged filmmakers to go rogue. The reactionary movies of Lynn Shelton and the Duplass brothers aren’t innovative per se, but they’re wafting fresh air over an indie scene gone stagnant in the States. Mumblecore films are genuinely independent and halfway improvised, stripped of contrivance and lovely in their starkness. They’re building a neorealistic oasis in a melodramatic landscape, and with luck they might begin to inform the larger domestic scene. Shelton proves you don’t need an army to participate in the world’s most collective art form. You barely even need a script. What you need, instead, are game performers and an ear for organic conversation. Realism remains the most difficult of fictions to pull off, but Shelton succeeds because of her sense of relationship, which generates infinite warmth. If it took a provocative premise to get the movement noticed, so be it: Ben (Mark Duplass) and Andrew (Joshua Leonard), college friends who’ve drifted into separate lifestyles, decide to film themselves having ironic gay sex for “Hump Fest,” a festival devoted to amateur porn. The catch? Both men identify as straight, with little bicuriosity and lots of trepidation. Andrew’s been living Kerouac and Ben’s gone suburban, but they reconnect instantly, awkwardly and fondly when Andrew shows up on Ben’s doorstep full of the forced exuberance of the pretentiously free.

Having two straight men play chicken with each other over who’s more comfortable with gay sex is Shelton’s paradoxical stroke of genius. Humpday explores two versions of turn-of-the-century masculinity, and heterosexual guy-on-guy meta-porn is the perfect vehicle to vex the hell out of machismo (and thumb a nose at essentialist thinkers who came to the movie expecting a homophobic bromance). It also compacts the men’s anxieties about gender performance and friendship into a thermal core and sets the stage for outstanding parlor vignettes. Shelton’s work with the actors is extraordinary; we’re in the room with them, off to one side. Alycia Delmore, who plays Ben’s wife, is actual – many of us know this person, just as we know Ben or Andrew. Familiarity adds meaning and dimension to everything these characters say, and Shelton needs all three of them in triangle to mine her ideas. Humpday is a nanny’s knowing embrace designed to make us squirm. — Ranylt Richildis

(Originally published as part of In Review Online’s While We Were Sleeping in 09 feature, on December 30, 2009.)

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