Y ou would think Tanner Cohen is simply too big to play a fairy. At 6 foot 4, the 21-year-old actor towers above his would-be tormentors in Were the World Mine, a breathtaking musical film that is both a retelling and a gloriously queer reinvention of A Midsummer Nights Dream.
As Timothy, the resident gay outcast in his all-boys academy, Cohen tunes out humdrum high school in favor of sweetly sexy fantasies -- staged song-and-dance numbers in which his classmates don glitter and silver lam shorts while head jock Jonathon (Nathaniel David Becker) croons Timothys name. They shall hear that I am not afraid, Timothy sings back, almost smugly. (The lyrics are largely adapted from the original Shakespeare.)
Timothy's crush isn't wholly his imagination. Jonathon lets his looks -- and his slaps on Timothy's ass -- linger just a little too long for mere camaraderie. He chastises his teammates for ganging up on Timothy (the only way they have half a shot at winning a fight), says Timothys jump shot shows good form and compliments his overheard audition for the senior play.
When Timothy is cast as Puck, the eternal scene-stealer of that Shakesqueer crap, as one kid calls it, he is urged by his trouble-making English teacher (Twin Peaks amazing Wendy Robie) to tap into the power of the pansy, recreating Midsummers love potion. He turns Jonathon queer -- along with everyone else in town -- and the giddy new boyfriends delight in sweet kisses and tender touches. (Though cowriter and director Tom Gustafson complains that most indie gay cinema is first and foremost all about naked boys, but the audience is smarter than that, the movies stunning cinematography doesnt shy away from lingering on its actors forms.)
As in the play, "the course of true love never did run smooth," and Puck's imprecise magic quickly leads to chaos. But even amidst the madness, Cohens bold performance proves its the boy in the lace wings whos calling the shots. Tanner is so confident and eccentric at the same time, says Gustafson.
He knows there are ramifications to his open sexuality, Cohen says of his character. Its a pretty simple choice. You can either cry about it or just do your thing. He doesnt make any apologies for himself.
Cohen, who will graduate from the University of California, Los Angeles, next spring with a degree in cultural studies, is equally issue-free. Ill have plenty of time to put labels on myself as I get older, so why start now? For the time being, I can tell you that I love someone, and he happens to be a man.
The movie indulges its musical imagination, but it doesnt ultimately sacrifice its happy ending for whimsy. In the play the lovers are made to think it's all been a dream, but in this "anti-High School Musical," as Were the World Mine was at one point dubbed, a surprising truth is given a chance to triumph. "It's about the truth of sexuality and yearning, about making your dream lead to your reality," Gustafson says. "I think our approach is a little more real than the shiny version from Disney."