The comedy in 21st century babymaking
While several of this year's South by Southwest Film submissions contend with contemporary anxieties surrounding pregnancy, birth, and parenting, writer/director Jonathan Lisecki's Gayby stands out as a surprisingly sweet and charming exploration of what happens when a Matt (Matthew Wilkas), a gay boy, and Jenn (Jenn Harris), a perpetually single gal, decide to make a baby together. And while on its surface Lisecki's film is a tart little romantic comedy, it's also a winking peek into the lives of gay folks, complete with inside jokes about best friends, bears, and comic books.
The impetus for Gayby, which began life as a short film in 2010, was a foiled plan of Lisecki's to make a baby with a female friend. "Then she had a child with her man friend, so there was no longer that option on the table," says Lisecki, who married his husband, the award-winning music critic Alex Ross, in Canada in 2005. "So, without an available womb, my response was to do a film about what would be the easiest scenario for someone like me to have a child."
Lisecki also co-stars in the film as Nelson, Matt's snarky best friend who is experimenting with being a bear – a "nellybear," to be precise, who insists that growing a beard and getting chubby is his claim to membership in the club of hairy hypermasculine men who form a subculture that is known for eschewing their more effeminate counterparts. In this way, Lisecki isn't just depicting two college friends having a baby together; he's also playing with issues of gay identity and the politics of gay subcultures.
For a long time, "the standard-bearer of the gay community was the hairless muscly guy. And for a while, there was a little bit of a subculture where you get chubby and have a beard, but that's become the dominant culture," Lisecki explains. "My comment on that, in trying to be the queeniest bear possible, was to point out that when one subculture becomes the dominant culture, someone gets left out." At the same time, Lisecki brings into relief the spaces where gay men can feel comfortable being themselves: comic-book stores.
A lifelong collector of comic books, Lisecki wedded that passion to his film project (which helped to cut down on production costs because he was able to film on the cheap at his local shop in Manhattan) by writing Matt as a comic-book artist (and clerk) with a bad case of writer's block. "The truth is that comic-book guys are so cool. There's something very lovely about my comic-book store; I can walk in there and be as super-gay as I want to be and they're so nice. It's like the one place where you know a heterosexual guy isn't going to be taken aback by you because you're [both] already part of a subculture."
Gay men can also rest assured that they will always have a job when Lisecki is at the helm of a film. Many, if not all, of the gay characters in Gayby are played by gay men, a deliberate choice on Lisecki's part. "I don't think I ever would have cast a straight person to play a gay person, even though I believe in acting," he says. "But when you see some straight person playing gay and they win an Oscar, I just find it a little painful. It's like, what can I do to get an Oscar? I can do My Left Foot or Milk. Like it's such a stretch for a straight guy to play a gay guy. I know a lot of a gay people and I have a lot of gay roles and I'm happy to give a gay actor the chance to play someone gay, especially when all you audition for as a gay man is the role of the really gay best friend."
And it's not just gay guys who benefit from Lisecki's professional largesse. Given that the film makes its world premiere in Texas, it's only fitting that Lisecki was also able to draw from Austin's considerable film community for the production of Gayby. Illustrator and comic-book artist Nick Derington (who has contributed work to The Austin Chronicle) did the drawings for Matt's nascent comic book, Super Gayby. Filmmaker and graphic designer Yen Tan, who was recently profiled in this paper ("Sleight of Hand," Feb. 10), designed the film's bubblegum-pink-and-blue poster, and the film's director of photography, Clay Liford, now resides in Austin.
As Lisecki awaits the mid-March birth of his celluloid baby, he must contend with his expectations for his – and his movie's – experience of the Film Festival. "Selling it would definitely be the goal, but I feel more excited about having the experience of having people see it first. There are a couple of things I need to do while I'm there. The one thing I want to do is go to the Counter Cafe and have one of those amazing hamburgers." As any parenting book will tell you, it's good to have priorities.
Narrative Feature Competition
Monday, March 12, 1:15pm, Stateside
Tuesday, March 13, 1:45pm, Alamo Lamar
Thursday, March 15, 5pm, Stateside