Judge George Hatch experienced a Revelation and sees "Better Days" ahead if there are more independent films like this in the future.
"So, your church doesn't approve of alcohol or homosexuals. Well, I'm definitely not signing up. I can't imagine heaven without both.
"The funny thing about guilt is that you can't find something else so bad to add to that guilt and make it worse. And nothing so good that you can add to make it better. We all have an inherent ability to heal, and we seem intent on living through whatever happens."—Lila
Latter Days is easily one of the finest films I've seen; and it just might be the best and most honest gay film in over 20 years. Don't expect an angst-ridden AIDS melodrama like Love! Valour! Compassion!, or some flip and "witty" comedy like The Fluffer or Trick. Latter Days is about loneliness and love, religion and romance. It's also a semi-autobiographical film, written and directed by C. Jay Cox, a former Mormon who went through an identity crisis attempting to rationalize and reconcile his overly righteous religion's condemnation of homosexuality, and come to terms with his own sexual preferences.
Facts of the Case
Aaron (Steve Sandvoss) arrives in Los Angeles along with three other young Mormon missionaries, eager to spread the word of God. They all share an apartment in a housing complex. Across the courtyard, the promiscuously gay Christian (Wes Ramsey) catches sight of Aaron and his eyes nearly pop through the window. Clean-cut and crew-cut, Aaron is every gay man's fantasy of a hot college frat boy. But Aaron's religion forbids premarital sex (including masturbation), and considers homosexuality to be a total "abomination in the eyes of the Holy Father." So Aaron has a personal cross to bear: the "dark and shameful secret" of his own suppressed gay feelings. His roommate, Paul (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is waiting for the day he can marry "and finally nail" his back-home girlfriend; and he literally chews the headboard "because I can't even beat off." Aaron, though, can't get Christian out of his mind. These two men eventually strike up a friendship that may—or may not—evolve into a genuine relationship.
While many films have dealt with a young man or woman's gay "coming-of-age," only a few chose to tackle homosexuality and religion in the same context because together they're strictly a "No Go" topic. It took too long a time for gays to be "socially accepted." Stonewall recounts the 1969 riots in New York City's Greenwich Village that secured our recognition as "just plain human beings like everyone else." In the past few years we've made important political strides, from The Life of Harvey Milk, San Francisco's first openly gay city official, to New Jersey Governor James McGreevey's recent pronouncement of being "a gay American." This latter case is still in the courts, but McGreevey chose to "out" himself rather than fall victim of what appears to have been an attempt at blackmail and extortion. (For reference, I suggest you watch Basil Dearden's groundbreaking 1961 film, Victim, starring Dirk Bogarde as a British barrister who chose to do the same rather than be bait for blackmail.)
But the cross-eyed gods of every religion still judge homosexuality to be a grievous sin worthy of eternal damnation. There's an excellent documentary, Trembling Before G-d, in which Orthodox Jews painfully detail the struggles they had (and, in some cases, still have) with their gay feelings. And as an ex-Catholic, I'm still wrestling with my review for The Boys of St. Vincent. This 1992 Canadian made-for-TV film was ahead of its time in dealing with homophobia and the currently controversial subject of priests whose vestments have been soiled by inappropriate behavior. Latter Days takes a surprisingly intimate look at Mormons, and how their strict—and, in my view, out-of-date and hypocritical—restrictions psychologically and emotionally affect the lives of two young men.
Latter Days opens with Aaron arriving in Los Angeles, and the first thing he sees is a hobo street-preacher carrying a sign that says, "Welcome to Hell!" You really can't condemn an entire city as another Sodom or Gomorrah; but note that after Aaron finally has sex with Christian he says, "Well, I'm going to Hell just for kissing you, so I figured I might as well take the scenic route." Aaron's real Hell, however, is not Los Angeles; it's his hometown and his own family. When he's sent back, his mother, Gladys (Mary Kay Place), at least has the decency to meet him at the airport; but she won't even look him in the eye or touch him. She doesn't simply hand him a winter coat; she leans over and extends it to him, as if he had some communicable disease. Aaron's father presides over the panel of Mormon excommunicators, and his son's "sin" is so disgusting it can barely be put into words. "You're abnormal and in an abominable state…I wish I had enough shame for both of us." Shortly, there's a shattering confrontation between Aaron and his mother that sums up religious criteria versus homosexuality. Gladys is picking up some broken china and twice Aaron asks, "Mom?" Without looking up, she finally answers, "Well, Aaron, what is it?" "Nothing, really. I just wanted to see if you could bring yourself to look at me."
I like to quote a few lines of dialogue in my reviews. If "a picture is worth a thousand words," often a short line followed by a brief comment may be worth 500. Here, however, I feel obligated to condense Gladys' tirade against her son because it reiterates the theme of this review. So, with apologies to writer and director C. Jay Cox, Aaron's mother says:
"Okay, Aaron, I'm looking at you and just what am I supposed to be seeing? Don't you understand what you've done? Two men…in love? Don't you realize how ridiculous that sounds? How repulsive that is to God and everyone? People turn their carts around at the supermarket and look away from me at the bank. Why do you think your father doesn't come home for dinner? [Christian] used you and he would have told you anything. Tools of the devil, that's what they [homosexuals] are. He used you and now he's probably moving on to his next…fornication. Maybe Heavenly Father can forgive you for what you've done. But if that's who you are, He could never forgive someone like that."
So much for motherly love. Thankfully, I never had to deal with that kind of verbal abuse. The term "coming out" hadn't even been coined until the late 1960s. Earlier in that decade, however, I could feel my parents' resentment growing after I graduated college, finished a stint in the Navy…but never married and gave them grandchildren to carry on the family name. Post-Stonewall, I've known Jews and Catholics, lesbian and gay, who were rejected (maybe "exorcised" is a more appropriate word) for their preferences. A few years ago, I tutored a young Irish-Catholic (double whammy) college boy who "came out" to his parents in his freshman year. His situation turned out much like Aaron's in Latter Days: His father barely spoke to him for two years, and his mother not only kept their house neat, but it was practically antiseptic—as if this kid was, in some way, "contagious." He took me to see the place, and while framed photographs almost overwhelmed the living room, there were no pictures of their son. Clearly, this house was not a "home." It was, instead, a shrine to bigotry and discrimination.
The tag line for Latter Days reads, "Aaron prays. Christian plays. Opposites attract." It's catchy and clever, but an all-too-whimsical condensation of the plot. And, in no way, does it reflect the complex emotions that come into play throughout the film. As the two men grow closer, they share doubts, anger, and frustration about their compatibility, but they gradually change each other's lives. Aaron becomes less "holier than thou" by slowly shedding his inhibitions. When Christian introduces himself, Aaron tells him Mormon missionaries aren't supposed use their first names; but he shyly whispers his to Christian, and it's his first break with tradition. Mormon missionaries aren't allowed to be "away from their assigned community." But when roommate Paul doesn't respond to Aaron's call for help, Aaron alone helps the injured Christian back inside his apartment—a strictly forbidden act that might compromise his purity.
Rather than remain "shallow and skin deep" in Aaron's eyes, Christian joins Project Angel Food and starts delivering meals to AIDS victims. On his first day, he's shaken by a talk with a wheelchair-bound patient in the last stages of the disease. Christian tries to end the argument by saying, "You don't know me." Keith (Erik Palladino) says, "I was you. But now I'm just a skeletal reminder that we might only be in the eye of the hurricane." Later on, Christian feels he's lost Aaron, and there's a scene both sad and funny. He mopes into Keith's apartment and is told, "Hey, man! Don't come over here looking like that anymore. You're depressing the hell out of me!" Both Keith and Christian's roommate, Julie (Rebekah Johnson), advise him to either move on or get back in touch with Aaron. "What am I supposed to do? Dial 1-800-Tortured-Mormon?" Julie says, "Probably. I'm sure there's enough of them."
And I'm sure director C. Jay Cox was one of "them"—until he put his feelings on paper and wrote the poignant screenplay for Latter Days. In his commentary, Cox says he came across some old photos of himself at age 19, and wanted to compare his old self with the new person he'd become. These two "selves" evolved into Aaron and Christian, beautifully played by Steve Sandvoss (American Dreams) and Wes Ramsey (The Guiding Light). Not a scene is wasted, and Cox's direction is meticulously detailed. Although he admits having chosen not to subject himself to the ordeal of excommunication, he researched the process thoroughly in order to accurately depict this humiliating experience on screen. He wanted to show the Mormons' "sacred underwear" (they look like a knee-length version of boxer-briefs), as they were "a metaphor of Aaron's stripping away the belief system he'd been entrenched in." Cox felt that the sex scenes should be "challenging but done in good taste [because] there were a lot of transitions and emotional moments I wanted to capture." During Aaron and Christian's love scene, explicit nudity was essential because the two men are also "emotionally naked," exposing and sharing their most intimate secrets.
Cox's incidental characters also play important roles in the development of Aaron and Christian's relationship. Aaron's missionary partner, Paul, is a true homophobe, and he also acts as the "heavenly little angel" on Aaron's shoulder who is supposed to keep him on the straight-and-narrow. It's Paul's second nature to spout slurs, insinuations, and downright insults, but, at a crucial moment, he's too busy roughhousing with his roommates when Aaron calls for his help before entering Christian's apartment alone. Paul also appears a bit jealous when Aaron takes time out to comfort "the crying lady," Lila (Jacqueline Bisset, La Cérémonie), on one of their "knock-on-doors-spread the word" campaigns. Bisset gives a superb performance here, grieving the loss of a loved one; she's the most worldly-wise character in the film. She's seen it all, and she's been through it all—thus, she never prejudges anyone. Lila is also the most important link between Aaron and Christian. She is so moved by Aaron's concern and sincerity that she invites him for a drink and dinner at her exclusive restaurant where Christian is one of her waiters; she gives Aaron her card. In two separate scenes, Lila is the confidant and consoler to both men.
In my review of Abel Ferrara's King of New York, I cited "the curse of independent films," those occasional little gems made on a low budget, but with more integrity, intelligence, realism, and unpredictability than any Hollywood blockbuster. Pre-screenings and a lot of long money allow the big studios to alter scenes and change endings to please their intended audience. Independents like Ferrara and Cox, however, rely imagination and ingenuity. Cox used different areas of a hospital for many scenes, including the inside and outside of an airport, and even Gladys's dining room. He had to scrape up some last-minute funds to create a few costly CGI sequences that he felt would "really make a scene work"—something as small as having "cold breath" appear during a lengthy conversation taking place during a snowstorm. Considering the attention span of today's average moviegoer, "long monologues are not allowed," so Cox "wanted to break this convention…in order to give more insight to his characters," particularly Christian, who has some intriguing backstory. All the monologues work beautifully. The "curse" extends to all categories of independent films. Award-worthy scripts, acting, and cinematography are too often overlooked, and that's the case here. Newcomer Sandvoss and pros Bisset and Mary Kay Place (Being John Malkovich) give stellar performances. Wes Ramsey, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (10 Things I Hate About You), Erik Palladino (U-571) and Rebekah Johnson (Liberty Heights) deliver equally solid backup, giving the cast an ensemble feeling.
Latter Days is one of TLA's best releases. The 1.85.1 anamorphic transfer for this low-budget film is absolutely stunning, thanks to Carl Bartel's (Radical Jack) inventive cinematography. The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is fine, but once again, I'm asking TLA: Please, start providing subtitles! Filming on location and under awkward circumstances render some dialogue either muffled or echoic, and with a screenplay like this, not a word should be missed. The extras include a "behind-the-scenes" featurette and a very informative commentary by the director, with the two lead actors chipping in at appropriate moments. An unusual short film by Cox, titled Reason 13, is also included. Some deleted scenes, a photo gallery, and three music videos round out the package.
A scheduled screening of Latter Days in the Mormon heartland of Salt Lake City, Utah, had to be cancelled because the theater was threatened with protests and boycotts. It's an extremely controversial film, and I expect that was director Cox's intent. Latter Days will either touch or infuriate any number of groups. I suggest you click the second IMDb link under "Accomplices" and connect to this film's message board. You can see for yourself how Latter Days has polarized audiences. There are some "spoilers" revealed, so read a few thread titles, and scan only a handful of comments. Then watch the film on your own—but from Lila's point of view, without making any "prejudgments."
In my verdict, I chose to paraphrase a patriotic WWII anthem written by
Frank Loesser in 1943 titled "Praise the Lord and Pass the
Ammunition." It's about a chaplain who laid the Bible aside, picked up a
gun, and joined the soldiers in combat so we could "all stay free."
After 60 years, it still sounds most appropriate in this particular judicial
Not guilty! Hallelujah! Praise the independent filmmaker and pass along the next feature from C. Jay Cox!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: TLA Releasing
• Behind-the-Scenes Featurette
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