THE GREEN – DVD review

Unlike some critics, I don’t have a problem with advocacy films. It’s just that too often advocacy ends up taking the place of aesthetics when filmmakers either try too hard to win converts or else preach to the choir. In the case of gay and lesbian films, most of those I’ve seen fall into the latter category, where you get the feeling that the writer and director are so focused on telling stories in which the protagonists share the same lifestyle as their gay and lesbian audience that they spend a disproportionate amount of time on public and private displays of affection.

So naturally I thought “The Green” was cut from the same old celluloid when, in the first five minutes, one man obviously living with another walks outside where his significant other is gardening, picks up a dog’s ball, and tosses it so the animal will fetch. The line of dialogue we get? “Nice arm,” with a flirty smile eliciting a muscle pose from the thrower. Something like this might make sense if the guys were in the early stages of a relationship, but they’re owning or renting a house together and we learn later that they’ve been a couple for more than a dozen years. Shortly afterwards, they’re in a shower together, soaping each other up, and I’m thinking, Here we go again. Hetero or homo, it makes no difference. A film that treats sexual scenes gratuitously this early in the film has a problem, whether it’s a gay film or “Debbie Does Dallas.”

Then something curious happens. With a narrative structure that has a lot in common with the mainstream film “Doubt,” writer Paul Marcarelli and director Steven Williford (who cut his directing teeth on the TV soaps “As the World Turns” and “All My Children”) seem to remember that there’s a story to tell, and that the characters’ sexual orientation ultimately doesn’t matter. It’s there, and we never lose sight of it, but it’s in the side-view mirrors rather than in front of the headlights. The minute that they take that approach, it clears the way for the dialogue to become less cheesy and for the acting to take a more serious turn.

Wannabe novelist Michael (Jason Butler Harner, who’s signed on to appear in the “Alcatraz” TV series) leaves the big city because he wants to experience “the green” of small-town living. He buys a house in a small Connecticut seaside town with his partner, Daniel (Cheyenne Jackson, “Glee” “30 Rock”), and while it’s not clear how long they’ve been there, it’s been long enough for Michael to find a job teaching at Yardley high school, and for Daniel to open a restaurant and catering business. But they haven’t been there long enough to find acceptance beyond a small circle of friends–their best friend being Trish (character actress Illeana Douglas), who has health problems and a sharp wit (“Ever notice how my sister-in-law always smells like a first edition of Beowulf?”).

Despite another misstep in the classroom, where the screenwriter has a high school student talking like a grad student, and despite a familiar story of a false accusation of improper contact with a student that snowballs into the kind of witch hunt that’s part of New England’s haunted history, the acting and the characters are strong enough to make the film worth watching. Douglas in particular is a scene-stealer, while Julia Ormond adds a serious and leveling presence as Karen, the attorney who takes on Michael’s case.

Some of the scenes may be a little soap-opera shrill, equating emotion with volume, but the actors seem to feed off each other’s performance and the lines never get in the way–that is, once you get past that cheesy opening sequence. And thankfully, while there plenty of hugs and tender kisses throughout this film, because they’re peripheral they seem as natural as can be. And for a gay film–whether it’s advocating for better understanding from the straight community or giving its main audience a film with protagonists they can identify with–that’s no small accomplishment.

If it weren’t for an overly familiar plot that gives way, in the third act, to an O.Henry ending, “The Green” would be one of the best gay-themed films I’ve reviewed. In fact, despite its shortcomings, it’s still one of the most enjoyable gay or lesbian films I’ve seen. Maybe it’s the integration of gay and straight characters who clearly have love or respect for one another that makes the difference. It certainly should in real life.

For an indie film, “The Green” has incredible production values, starting with the video, which, presented in 1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen, has impressive edge definition and detail. Colors and skin-tones are natural-looking, and there were times when the visual quality approached HD.

The audio is even more impressive, with an English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound delivering a robust audio across the sound field, especially during a storm. But even scenes where bodies are slammed against lockers have the crispness that the better 5.1 tracks have. There’s a 2.0 option as well, though I don’t know who’ll use it, along with closed captioning.

Aside from a trailer, the only extras are five deleted scenes: Searching for Leo’s Liqour, Sticky & Wet, Jason’s Late Again, Hammers & Ambient Fear, and After the Storm.

Bottom line:
“The Green” won for Best Feature at the Connecticut Film Festival. I’m not the grand judge of gay-themed films, but this one has a certain resonance, despite some clichés and clumsy foreshadowing.