1999, NR, 105 min. Directed by John Keitel. Starring Lesley Tesh, Seabass Diamond, Linna Carter, Don Handfield, Niklaus Lange, Daniel Chilson.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Nov. 12, 1999
The gentle lift you feel in watching Defying Gravity is propelled by the earnestness of its emotions. This finely modulated melodrama about a college fraternity member's struggle with his sexual identity treats its central conflict with resolute empathy and heartfelt sentiment. Although the coming-out storyline of the film is a familiar one, the context in which it's told -- a repressed, straighter-than-straight world in which the concept of brotherly love can't be taken too literally -- is a new one that gives Defying Gravity a sense of freshness. For Griff (Chilson), his physical and emotional attraction to men, particularly to fellow fraternity brother, Pete (Handfield), is nothing more than a passing phase that doesn't merit any real self-evaluation. As a consequence, Griff leads two lives, both of which inevitably collide when Pete is brutally beaten, the target of a vicious gay-bashing. Defying Gravity doesn't sugarcoat or trivialize Griff's quandary, a new twist on the time-honored "to be or not to be" predicament. Rather, it progressively externalizes the character's repressed feelings in a manner that makes his inner turmoil utterly believable. Chilson's affable, sober performance as the film's focal character enhances this effect; it's heartbreaking to see him valiantly try to keep up appearances. There are aspects of the film's script, however, that aren't as strong as its depiction of Griff's dilemma. For instance, while the character's relationships with his unsuspecting best friend and an African-American woman he befriends by virtue of a common bond are integral to the story, they could use a bit more development. But even with that said, director-screenwriter Keitel shows distinctive promise in his first feature film, a solid achievement made all the more admirable when considering the limited budget with which he worked and the film's 13-day shooting schedule. And while there's nothing really cutting-edge about Defying Gravity -- some may say that it resembles nothing more than a grownup version of an after-school special -- it is the kind of movie that, at heart, elicits a respectful awe for those who toil in the province of true independent filmmaking. In that respect, the hope in Defying Gravity truly floats.