Gentlemen Broncos Review
I don’t remember my first encounter with oral sex, but I know it was long in coming. Unlike Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano), the hopelessly alienated hero of Jared Hess’s (Napoleon Dynamite) latest celebration of nerd-dom, Gentlemen Broncos, I did not have homeschooling as my excuse. I was just unathletic, awkward, and into all the wrong stuff. And yet one vein of guaranteed virginity I managed to avoid was Science Fiction Fantasy, perhaps the dorkiest and lowest of all literary forms, and the milieu in which Hess bases his story.
At a young writers convention, “Cletus Festival,” Benjamin has the opportunity to learn from his favorite science fiction writer, Dr. Ronald Chevalier – played with pretentious delight by Flight of The Concord‘s Jemaine Clement – the genre’s Tom Wolfe, whose ridiculous 70s coife is bolstered by a mix of Navajo jackets, roadside jewelry, and an inextricable Bluetooth earpiece. While he dresses for success, the emperor has no clothes; after a string of failures, he’s in danger of being dropped by his publisher. Desperate, the master steals from his apprentice. He plagiarizes Benjamin’s best work, Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years, changing the names and emasculating the protagonist, who Benjamin based on his dead father.
When the book is a hit, and Benjamin learns of the betrayal, he is furious, but helpless to act. His life only gets worse as creative duo Tabatha (the inspired Halley Feiffer) and Lonnie (played by Hector Jiminez, who provides Lonnie with the inimitable visage of an Ecuadorian tranny mixed with Eeyore), his colleagues from Cletus Fest, adapt his story into a terrible, low-budget film, removing more of the balls from his masterwork.
Angarano is the only Hollywood-looking actor in this film, but he doesn’t let that stop him from giving a heart-felt and deeply funny performance as the embodiment of adolescent dejection. You almost never see Benajmin smile; his life is encumbered by a laundry list of humiliations: fatherless, friendless, homeschooled by his hopelessly untalented fashion-designer mother. He wears his dispossession as naturally as his father’s ill-fitting clothes (and later, the clothing his mother has sewn – for women). It is the uniform of the downtrodden. And of the just.
Hess’s world of Sci Fi fantasy is replete with these notions of good, evil, justice and truth. But also sex. From mammary cannons to phallic weapons of every variety, Hess cleverly pairs the genre with the massive sexual repression suffered by its adherents. Sex is everywhere in this movie, but never on the screen – he keeps any and all carnality on a deliciously awkward periphery – leaving us with just the sexual yearnings, flirtations, and lamentations that teens do best.
And yet the film’s very best moments are not found in these lascivious tropes, they’re in the language that Benjamin, Chevalier, and their brethren employ in their art. Words like “laser rain” and “troll colonies” are as familiar in this geek patois as say “garbage can” or “diaper rash” are in ours – it’s where we find the characters’ deep commitment to their lifestyle.
Chevalier speaks with grand eloquence, peppered with constant references to his own additions to this inspired lexicon. It is his mark of insecurity, and when challenged by one of his students as to the veracity of some of his characterizations, he lashes out at the poor teenager with the vehemence of a King redressing an impudent general: “You do realize I’m the author of Troll Hole?” In Chevalier’s mind, he is not just an author; he is a god, creating and destroying universes with a flick of his pen.
While Benjamin and Chevalier’s battle does not disappoint, the story of Broncos is very much secondary. The real joy here is in Hess’s revelation of the America represented nowhere else on film. His nerds are not the charming Lloyd Dobbler variety, or the kickass Buffy kind – they are real losers, and his love for these characters and their possibilities is apparent in every frame.
Co-written by his brother Jerusha, what the Hesses have done is create an apt and sincere follow-up to the debut that will always be their calling card (let’s forget about Nacho Libre, please). They have lovingly satirized not just a genre, but the horrific process of adolescent creativity, the politics and egos of a subculture and ultimately the sadness and desperation of teen alienation. They have made art out of bad art, perhaps maybe the worst art, and have done so without cynicism, or cruel intentions.
As a guy who spent Saturday morning in improv class, and Saturday nights alone, I thank them.
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