Family Outing

Washington City Paper | January 13, 2006
The Lagatos family dines together and talks about the issues of the world. Quotes from historical figures often pepper their discussions. One son is an NYU-bound student; the other is a star quarterback. This loving, enlightened household in upstate New York seems like just the kind of environment in which a teenager could announce his homosexuality without fear of derision or banishment.

Except that when Mr. Lagatos (Steven C. Fletcher) quotes Abraham Lincoln at the dinner table, it’s to advise his not-yet-out son Dorian that “it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” And when Dorian confesses his secret to his younger, studlier brother, Nicky (Lea Coco), Nicky borrows a line from Mein Kampf to support the argument that Dorian should simply act het around his judgmental classmates: “You tell a lie long enough and loud enough,” he says, “eventually they’ll believe it.”

“So your advice is to be more like Hitler?” Dorian deadpans.

Dorian Blues, writer-director Tennyson Bardwell’s debut, is a witty if familiar look at a young man’s struggle with sexual identity. Its protagonist is someone you’ve seen before—the kind of sharp, self-aware guy who introduces himself with a bit of self-conscious Kiss Kiss Bang Bang–style narration. “I find it’s good to talk about everything. My therapist says I overdo that—that I overanalyze,” Dorian voice-overs during the movie’s opening funeral. “Of course, she’s bulimic, so let’s not get too preachy.”

Fortunately, Bardwell usually displays a lighter touch. And Michael McMillian, the WB vet who embodies the director’s protagonist, has more than enough charm to make Dorian’s largely predictable journey a pleasant one. The former gives us Nicky’s ridiculous “Guide for the Closeted,” which includes saying “awesome” instead of “fabulous.” The latter convincingly sells Dorian’s first attempt to come out to his dad, represented by a dummy in a therapy session. The exercise turns into a phantom off-topic back-and-forth during which Dorian turns in exasperation from Dummy Dad to his therapist: “Annoying, isn’t he?” McMillian plays the line perfectly—as if he were Topher Grace in slightly gayer In Good Company mode.

This is a story of confusion and angst, though, and Bardwell skillfully balances the humor with a proper amount of sobriety. What initially seems a stereotypical fraternal relationship—tough-talking jock versus introspective thinker—evolves into something deeper as Nicky tries to support and protect Dorian in the best ways he knows how. Both of them, after all, are united by a fear of their critical, unfair father—even though he clearly favors Nicky. As the merciless dad, stage performer Fletcher is a powerhouse, with a caustic edge to his voice and an unblinking, withering glare that clearly demonstrates how difficult Dorian’s burden will be to unload. Coco, too, nicely humanizes a typically one-dimensional character—not bad for a former member of the Blue Man Group. Mo Quigley, as the boys’ mother, doesn’t leave much of an impression, but her invisibility is actually a crucial part of her role.

Dorian Blues has its flaws, however. The film is supposed to cover a 10-year span, though if that’s true, Dorian takes a helluva long time moving through late high school and early college. There’s also a blatantly ripped-off (though still pretty joyous) Napoleon Dynamite–ish dance by a fellow high-school reject. Another problem—and this one’s a bit more significant—is that early in the story, Dorian is often referred to as not merely a melancholy loner, but also a “moody” loser. Though clearly troubled, McMillian’s Dorian is no prince of darkness, and the occasional dissonance between script and character can be distracting.

At least Dorian isn’t breakfasting on Pluto or otherwise queening it up. He’s funny, sure, but in Bardwell’s and McMillian’s hands, he’s hardly flamboyant—just a normal teen wrestling with the problems of self, school, family, and sex. And that’s not a problem at all.

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