Review of "Big Boys": An affectionate queer-education reflection on sexual self-discovery

Review of “Big Boys”: An affectionate queer-education reflection on sexual self-discovery

There is an everyday magical quality to the short summer camping trip where quiet but formative changes take place Big guys, Corey Sherman’s streamlined but lovable study of a chubby gay teenager’s first steps toward self-acceptance. The stigma of body shaming on queer kids in their early stages of evolution is little-explored territory, here refreshingly examined less in its isolation than in its incipient liberation – through time spent with a plus-size dude who exudes sexy, confident masculinity and a barrel full of empathy.

The writer-director’s personal expertise is present in every scene of a well-acted film that is sure to be an unassuming crowd pleaser at LGBTQ festivals and may even get the streamer exposure. The kind of queer young audience that made Netflix Heartstopper a success should gravitate to this highly specific but relatable story, which will speak more directly to boys of awkward ages struggling to see how their heavy bodies might fit into a gay landscape that so idealizes the Adonis model of physical beauty.

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Big guys

The bottom line

Paradoxically thin but big at heart.

Place: Provincetown Film Festival
Launch: Isaac Krasner, Dora Madison, David Johnson III, Taj Cross, Emily Deschanel
Director-writer: Corey Sherman

1 hour and 29 minutes

That said, the film captures with enormous sweetness feelings probably familiar to many queer teenagers who are still trying to figure out who they are: insecurity, questions and dizzying crushes on often unattainable objects of desire.

Jamie (Isaac Krasner) is a 14-year-old culinary nerd more or less accustomed to the flippant digs of his older brother Will (Taj Cross), an idiot with minimal sensibilities. When their single mother, Nicole (Emily Deschanel), informs them that Jamie’s favorite cousin, Allie (Dora Madison), is bringing her new boyfriend along for a weekend camping trip with the boys, Jamie immediately laments that the trip it is ruined. But new addition, Dan (David Johnson III), turns out to be a fine specimen of muscular good looks, not unlike the gay neighbors Jamie watches through his bedroom window.

At first, things look bleak, as Dan talks basketball with Will while Jamie admits he’s not much of a sports fan. Barefoot countess it’s more his speed, his brother adds with a scornful smirk. But Dan soon understands both Jamie’s discomfort and Will’s scathing treatment of him. He goes out of his way to be inclusive with the younger boy, helping him pitch his tent, showing him how to light a camping grill and acting suitably impressed when Jamie unpacks a batch of herbs to flavor the burgers.

Charming newcomer Krasner conveys Jamie’s food passion with such infectious enthusiasm you might start wishing he had his own Food Network show. The young actor is also hilarious when he’s sneaking up on Dan, who is clearly some kind of role model – and/or romantic fixation – entirely new to him.

When Jamie insists on teaming Dan for puns and the older man dubs them “The Big Boys,” you can practically see animated hearts dancing around Jamie’s head. That’s even before they crush their increasingly disgruntled opposition, Allie and Will. The scene also establishes a pattern of torn reactions in Allie, who seems slightly upset that her special relationship with Jamie has been usurped, but at the same time happy to see him bonding with a man she’s obviously quite passionate about.

Sherman is less sure of himself – and his writing less original – when Will relies on Jamie as his wingman to sneak away at night with some stolen booze and meet two teenage girls, Quinn (Emma Broz) and Ericka (Marion Van Cuyck ), who stay at the campsite with their parents. While Will is out making out with blonde and conventionally attractive Quinn, Jamie feigns drunkenness to avoid intimacy with Ericka, an anime geek who is used to guys wanting Quinn over her.

The film is on firmer footing when it captures the warmth Dan shows Jamie and the teenager’s hunger for it, stuttering nervously and constantly making excuses to get around his cousin’s boyfriend.

At one point Dan tells him that he knows what it’s like to be cornered by older brothers who called him fat. He encourages Jamie to hold on to Will, not to let him go away so much. Moments like that ignite Jamie’s erotic fantasies involving an older, hotter version of himself (Jack De Sanz) getting intimate with a smoking hot Dan. Are 14-year-old gay boys’ erotic fantasies inherently corny?

Sherman’s script cleverly maintains some ambiguity about the degree to which Jamie has admitted to himself that he might be gay – he denies it when Will asks outright – but being with Dan seems to push him towards full realization.

A long hike through the woods by the lake becomes an opportunity for Jamie to have some alone time with Dan when Allie and Will get tired of walking and decide to turn back. That long interlude provides some catharsis as they get lost without cell phone signal and the roles are briefly reversed. And a scene where Jamie suffers an injury and Dan takes off his shirt to dress the wound is both endearing and terribly funny.

It is in those delicately observed moments, beautifully played by Krasner and Johnson, that Big guys it excels, elevating it beyond a thin narrative that could almost be a short film. He gains retroactive emotional weight in a closing scene as Allie and Dan drive the brothers home and Jamie works up the courage to speak privately and somewhat openly with Dan.

Did Dan subcutaneously know what the teenager was going to say? This is deliberately blurred in Johnson’s generous performance. His reaction is the kind most queer kids can only dream of, yet it feels authentic to the story and the characters, to the point where we’re left wondering how much Dan will share with Allie next.

The soundtrack by Los Angeles electronic musician Will Wiesenfeld, who records as Baths, is nice, with its melodious notes and whispered vocals, if a little too used and sugary for my liking. But it’s a piece with a big-hearted, heartwarming film that never seems to be out looking in – instead it seems entirely connected to both the grittiness and revelations of Jamie’s age. For teens who can see themselves in his experience, I suspect it will be very significant.