Melbourne Queer Film Festival Review: Blackbird (USA, 2014)

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Attempting to intersect race, sexuality, religion and small town values, Patrik-Ian Polk’s Blackbird is a coming out and coming of age drama that’s an enjoyable watch, but ultimately proves too conventional to be truly special.

Randy (Julian Walker), a devoutly Christian choirboy from small town Mississippi, is plagued by a host of personal problems – his repressed same sex attraction, the separation of his parents (Mo’Nique, Isaiah Washington), his little sister’s disappearance, and the strange and terrifying visions that plague him. When he begins to work on a unconventional production of Romeo & Juliet with his close friends, all of these issues come to a head.

Blackbird mixes candid comedy and serious drama and never quite finds a harmonious combination of the two – but director Patrik-Ian Polk warns you of its unconventional tonal blend straight off the bat, juxtaposing Randy’s deeply Christian faith with his closeted desires in the film’s provocatively humorous opening moments. Religion is at the centre of Blackbird, both the good and the bad – Randy’s father reassures him that God’s love is unfailing, but we’re also witness to the cruelty of the pastor’s attempt to deliver Randy to salvation. Newcomer Julian Walker is excellent in the lead role, communicating Randy’s struggles to heartbreaking effect and holding his own against industry veterans Mo’Nique and Isaiah Washington as his parents.

The film drowns in conflict from a host of hot button topics – closeted sexuality, fanatical Christianity, teen pregnancy, child abduction, small town prejudice and more – and in trying to juggle them all, is rather simplistic where it arguably matters the most. The film leaves you with more questions than answers, wrapping up the multitude of issues we’ve been witness to over the 100 minute runtime all too neatly, and leaving much to be desired.

While Blackbird does fall a handful into the tragic tropes of queer cinema, Randy’s struggle with his sexuality is balanced well by both his supportive school friends, and out and proud gay characters. One aspect of Randy’s journey that’s hard to wrap your head around, however, is his burgeoning relationship with college student Marshall (Kevin Allesee). We’re introduced to Marshall by way of Randy’s audition for a student film production – in which Marshall pretends to sexually assault Randy. He’s deeply shaken, understandably, but the enthusiastic student director offers him the part immediately, and all too soon Randy and Marshall are awkwardly navigating their blossoming attraction. It’s difficult to tell what Polk was hoping to accomplish with this introduction, and indeed how we’re supposed to feel about the relationship as it progresses.

There are moments within Blackbird that elegantly convey the shame and struggles of navigating the troubled landscape of adolescence, but others that fall far too short. Overall, it’s a nice film – but too conventional, and too neatly packaged when the credits roll, to make any lasting impression.

 

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 99 minutes

Blackbird is screening as part of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, click here for more information and tickets.