The tender scenes between David (Benjamin Walker) and George (Brian J. Smith) are so very wonderful, and what really makes the film worth watching, as this portion of the film does not overpower the entire power, merely existing as a subplot. According to the DAVID ‘N THE DARK blog review, ““The War Boys,” A Film That Tries Too Hard“:
Until recently, it could be argued that LGBTQ themed films fit nicely into two categories: Serious dramas like Philadelphia and Boys Don’t Cry about AIDS and/or homophobia and oppression, or campy comedies that leave much to be desired in terms of craft and are painful to watch based solely on stereotypes (does anyone remember Another Gay Movie? I’ve been trying to forget it for years!). Today though, as societal views on homosexuality are changing so are the films being produced. We are now in an era of transition in which we see films about LGBTQ people as real people searching for connection and finding it or losing it, just like “straight” cinema. This being the case, as a gay man I am especially interested in finding films of quality being produced today that are not singly about death or homophobia but rather offer a glimpse into my own life. After watching the trailer and reading some articles on The War Boys, a movie I found highly ranked on a top 15 LGBTQ films list recently, I was excited to have possibly found a newer film that would deliver on this promise with one of my favorite new actors, Brian J. Smith (Hate Crime, SGU: Stargate Universe). I will say that the homosexual element of the film was treated tenderly and with sensitivity (mostly due to Mr. Smith’s superb acting chops), but boy was I disappointed overall after I finished watching this movie.
Written without much thought by Bruce McLeod and Naomi Wallace, adapted from Ms. Wallace’s play of the same name, and barely helmed by first time director Ron Daniels, The War Boys is about a group of three childhood friends from very different social classes who reunite when their seeming leader, the very rich and privileged David played by Benjamin Walker (Kinsey, Abraham Lincoln:Vampire Hunter). David returns home to their small border town after being suspended from University. Along with petty thief George (Brian J. Smith), David reverts back to adolescent mischief and brings Greg (Victor Rasuk – Fifty Shades of Grey, ER) along for the ride, much to his excitement and dismay for the studious Greg is an American Citizen born stateside to illegal immigrant parents who is trying to focus on his education and changing his status in the world. To get their kicks, the trio who are self-named “The War Boys” sit in a darkened truck at the Mexican border, ready to shoot guns into the air, frightening and harassing border jumpers before calling the border patrol. When David’s father Slater, played with unusual one-dimensionality by the otherwise acclaimed stage and screen actor Peter Gallagher (American Beauty, Burlesque), angers David by not allowing him to quit college and join the family import/export business, The War Boys decide to plot revenge by stealing one of Slater’s cargo trucks with unforeseen consequences.
Going back to my personal quest to find meaningful and honest LGBTQ films, I do love that The War Boys has a gay subplot that is touching but in no way overpowers the main story. It is hinted early on that David and George had an illicit affair as teenagers and the reuniting of the two friends after time apart ignites a spark between them as adults that both of them thought was gone. At first, only one of them is eager to pursue these feelings again but soon they are both along for the journey of self-discovery. This, of course, causes a disruption in friendship and family which I can only imagine was Wallace’s attempt to symbolically mirror the immigration issue that is so directly tackled in this film with preachy and obvious dialogue in over dramatized situations. Pushing the limits of believability, Greg won’t even speak Spanish in a predominantly Spanish speaking town in his effort to “Be American” and every Immigrant we meet is treated like a member of the family, albeit in a position of servitude. Unless of course that indidividual is in the country illegally and then they are in effect looked down at and spat upon as scum. Greg’s struggle to balance his familial history with his current situation and future goals puts him in far-fetched situations where he has violent emotional reactions that are not satisfactorily built up by the script or by Rasuk as an actor. His outbursts seems to come out of nowhere and with no justification, but I guess that is alright as Greg’s story is just another symbolic plot pointing to the overall theme of how America as a country views Immigration. Or maybe it’s symbolic of the journey of self-discovery that David and George are on with their homosexual attraction. But then again, isn’t the point of the gay suplot to relate the oppression of homosexuals to the oppression of immigrants?
I am normally a fan of Ms. Wallace’s stage work and am very excited to see her upcoming new play The Liquid Plain Off-Broadway at Signature Theatre Center, so I was very surprised at the lack of natural cohesion in the writing and the blending of stories. I am very interested to read Ms. Wallace’s original play script and see if these problems are inherent in the work or if the film tries to be too ambitious. Regardless of which it is, Ron Daniels lets the discordant stories drive and over take his direction rather than molding the script into a picture for us that creates a thought provoking juxtaposition of themes.
Not helping the film’s case is the lack of attention to detail and honesty in the acting. Rasuk’s Greg is unjustifiably over-emotional. It is one thing if a character is written with bipolar mood swings, but Greg is not and if the goal was to play him that way, Rasuk still falls flat. Walker’s David never seems to really feel anything, going through the motions with a certain air of disinterest. Walker is great with this, and I would find it admirable were the entire plot not based on his irrational emotions and need for revenge. Walker does give us some tender moments when David is falling in love but these are few and far between, leaving the character singing only one note that doesn’t quite line up with the rest of the story.
The true gem of this film is Brian J. Smith as George. I was first introduced to Smith when he played The Gentleman caller alongside Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto and Celia Keenan-Bloger in the 2013 Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. His subtle and honest brilliance in a role that has less than 15 minutes of stage time stole the entire show and I fell in love with this charming actor. The fact that he is in The War Boysis one of the reasons I decided to watch it as quickly as I did after seeing the list I found it on. Smith’s talent shines as a small time crook with an edge who has the tenderest of feelings buried deep within. The gravitas with which he gives us the “thug” is balanced perfectly with his moments of tender emotion and inner turmoil. Smith succeeds in giving us the one and only truly three-dimensional character on the screen in spite of the forced dialogue he has been handed. It is because of Smith that the LGBTQ story line stands out when structurally it should be a symbolic enhancement of the film rather than the main focus.
So it turns out that the LGBTQ theme in this movie that initially drew my attention is merely another subplot woven into an all-too-busy film that tries to weave together themes of oppression and self-discovery with natural teenage rebellion all while highlighting the dangers of “following the pack” and believing in stereotypes set against the backdrop of – and intending to comment on – the human side of the hot button political issue of Immigration, specifically Mexican/American border control. The War Boys wants to be more than it is, laying out several plots and subplots which are all complex stories accessible on many intellectual and emotional levels meant to blindside the viewer in the epiphany of their similarities. In actuality, the pieces don’t quite fit together the way they are intended and we are left with several disjointed plot lines whose morals are clear, but the forced interplay of the narratives leaves us confused and not really caring about any one of them specifically.