Benny and Christopher, students at Ohio’s University of Akron in the new movie Akron, are not just homeboys who grew up in the same state; they’re homo boys. As embodied by Matthew Frias and Edmund Donovan they’re both openly-gay, well-adjusted-gay, handsome-gay; complimenting each other in the brown-eyed/blue-eyed, Latino/Wasp way of couples that you see in TV commercials aimed at the gay market.
These guys are so perfectly, beautifully queer it is obvious that the directors Sasha King and Brian O’Donnell are making a social statement: The millennial “Love Wins” movement doesn’t just belong to coastal big cities. Akron shows it to be a hallmark of middle America (like Joseph Graham’s Philadelphia-set Something Beautiful, the best American queer movie of 2016). Through Benny and Christopher, families of different ethnicities and social backgrounds are united in the acceptance of their gay children.
At first, this aspect of Akron seems dreamlike—unreal, if you pardon my cynicism. The film avoids dramatic tension (no homophobic social obstacle to overcome) among Benny, Christopher and their super-tolerant, ethnically diverse siblings and schoolmates. But it takes a full half-hour for Akron to get past its trite, clichéd, stereotyped set-up and get back to that strange, star-crossed opening. Benny and Christopher are haunted by their past innocent fate. Their young adult love lives have already been set in motion by destiny.
It would be unsporting to reveal the exact nature of what interferes with Benny and Christopher’s romantic happiness. But while Akron is part of the underreported subculture of gay indie films—most of them direct-to-streaming (this one is distributed on DVD by Wolfe, the same company releasing the great Paris 05:59: Theo and Hugo)—I cannot pretend that King and O’Donnell fulfill this story’s emotional and spiritual potential.
So much of watching gay cinema involves wish-fulfillment. Gay cinema requires greater sensitivity than the political correctness that Akron provides. King and O’Donnell skip past the spiritual depth of Benny and Christopher’s loneliness which is hinted at in the brief childhood opening. As kids, they both resemble Morrissey’s “All You Need Is Me” lyric: “I was a small fat child in a welfare house/ There was only one thing I ever dreamed about/Fate has just handed it to me/ Whoopee!”
Akron neglects the “dream” to which Morrissey alludes. The film’s story of gay companionship means to resolve that dream as great passion and, indeed, exalted brotherhood. Both Benny and Christopher pursue an emotional lack that psychologists have explained as essential to sexual desire. Each boy’s relationship to his mother plays out this difficult need. (It is touchingly connected to a loss their mothers suffer).
Matthew Frias as Benny and Edmund Donovan as Christopher display adolescent spite and sensuality, sometimes recalling Dawson’s Creek callowness yet never as intense as the coupling scene in Andre Techine’s Being 17. (Meanwhile, their mothers, Andrea Burns and Amy da Luz, both mask sorrow with kindliness).
Unfortunately, King and O’Donnell use trite, TV-style images for their complex tale. It prevents them from endowing this middle-American homeboy love story with that special something—that homo-boy essence—one sees and feels in Morrissey’s "All You Need Is Me" music video. (Those t-shirts, those biceps, that drumming!) Akron is a nice try at normalizing gay romance, but the filmmaking needs the erotic and spiritual masculine energy of great gay cinema.