Friday, April 19, 2024

“NATIONAL ANTHEM”

THE STORY – Dylan (Plummer), a 21-year-old who lives in rural New Mexico and works as a construction worker to help support his little brother and alcoholic mother, joins a community of queer ranchers and rodeo performers.

THE CAST – Charlie Plummer, Eve Lindley, Mason Alexander Park, Rene Rosado & Robyn Lively

THE TEAM – Luke Gilford (Director/Writer), David Largman Murray & Kevin Best (Writers)

THE RUNNING TIME – 99 Minutes


In all its forms, storytelling is largely about creating empathy. Storytellers want their audience to create a bond with their characters, to understand what they are feeling and why. In today’s world, where division is being sown so deeply between different groups of people, we need stories that create stronger feelings of empathy that connect us to people whose lived experiences are so different from our own. The more we understand, the more we can relate, and thus, the more we can be better neighbors to our fellow human beings. Enter “National Anthem,” Luke Gilford’s story about a young man who gets the opportunity to explore the full range of his self-expression by falling in with a group of queer people who introduce him to the queer rodeo scene. The film easily lives up to its title, singing a song of freedom to the people of a country that is seemingly less free every day. It creates a symphony of beautiful and deeply felt empathy that even the most queerphobic viewer would be hard-pressed not to be moved by its story.

Dylan (Charlie Plummer) has been thrust into a lot of responsibility at too young of an age. His single mother (Robyn Lively) works but spends a good deal of her time and money on herself, going out drinking and bringing home no-good men. This has left Dylan to take care of both her and his younger brother by working as a day laborer. One day, he gets a multi-day job at a ranch run by Pepe (Rene Rosado). The ranch is home to a group of queer people who capture Dylan’s imagination, none more so than Sky (Eve Lindley), Pepe’s partner. This leads Dylan and his brother on a journey of self-discovery that takes them to the queer rodeo, a performance in drag, and a realization of who they each are that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

It’s a relatively simple but powerful story that rests largely on Plummer’s performance skills and Lindley’s charisma. Both performers go above and beyond, creating a palpable bond that draws the audience closer to them as they draw closer to each other. Plummer has never been better, cannily underperforming in the beginning so that we can see every gradation of emotion as he grows more attracted to Sky and her world. These are not people that Dylan has seen in his everyday life, but the utopia-like nature of the ranch has given them a freedom that he instantly recognizes and desires. It is the exact opposite of his oppressive home life, so of course, he ends up bringing his young, innocent brother along with him, realizing that these people provide a positive environment. These queer people are loving and accepting in a way that most of the brothers’ world is not, and even in a short amount of time, they both begin to flourish. Dylan’s attraction to Sky is easy to understand at both the level of physical beauty and a deeper, more spiritual level, with Lindley exuding an Earth Mother-like warmth that belies her otherworldly beauty (which Katelin Arizmendi captures in gorgeous magic hour cinematography). Sky is one of the few ranch members who get significant character development, leaving the ensemble to mostly fade into the background. However, this is mitigated by the film’s generous spirit, which allows for explosions of queer joy that emphasize the importance of community.

That sense of community informs the film’s best scene, the introduction to the queer rodeo. For several minutes, the film’s narrative essentially stops, instead of spending that time just looking at the rodeo attendees and what they do. The goings-on at the queer rodeo are just like those at any other rodeo, but the people who attend express themselves differently than the cowboys we’ve become accustomed to after decades of cowboy imagery. This sequence aims to correct that, reframing our ideas of what a rodeo looks like. Watching these queer people from all walks of life, sometimes just smiling at the camera at a rodeo while the national anthem plays in the background, is a potent reminder that America is full of all kinds of different people and that each of them deserves the freedom to live their life to the fullest.

Queer joy is so often presented in stereotypically queer contexts – the theater, gay clubs, private queer spaces – that seeing it in a context usually framed as exclusively heterosexual feels radical. In its own quiet way, “National Anthem” is radical, a powerful statement that whether or not you’re queer yourself, you can benefit from having queer people in your life, from exploring yourself in queer spaces and being open to them, as opposed to frightened of them. Neither Dylan nor his brother gets everything they want, but in the end, they get what they need, and even with some resistance, it’s clear that their experiences at the queer ranch with Pepe, Sky, and everyone else did both of them unequivocal good. Gilford’s light touch in the director’s chair is invaluable, gifting the film a deliberate pace that is slow like honey, making each moment all the sweeter the longer it lingers. Gifford ensures that the film is as sticky aesthetically as it is thematically and narratively, making “National Anthem” a new classic of queer cinema.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - A charismatic cast conveys a powerful message about the value of empathy and freedom of self-expression in this beautifully shot love letter to the queer rodeo scene.

THE BAD - A lot of the supporting characters feel a bit underdeveloped.

THE OSCARS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 9/10

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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>A charismatic cast conveys a powerful message about the value of empathy and freedom of self-expression in this beautifully shot love letter to the queer rodeo scene.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>A lot of the supporting characters feel a bit underdeveloped.<br><br> <b>THE OSCARS - </b>None <br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>9/10<br><br>"NATIONAL ANTHEM"