A distressingly large number of first-time American indie films focus on coming-of-age stories. In cases where the director is gay, there’s a good chance said that first feature will be a coming-of-age/coming-out story. What else should we expect? The directors haven’t been on earth all that long, and they write what they know, or else, what they’ve seen in other movies.
That said, “Big Boys” surprised me. Corey Sherman’s deliciously uncomfortable debut features a lot of the usual ingredients: a misfit teenage protagonist, a transformative couple days (in this case, a “cousins’ camping trip” to Lake Arrowhead), a series of embarrassing but life-altering experiences. But I hadn’t seen anyone like his main character at the center of a movie before and loved how awkwardly this kid navigates trying to figure himself out.
Fourteen-year-old Jamie (Isaac Krasner, the movie’s immensely likable discovery) doesn’t know what to make of his identity. At one point, wrestling with conflicting desires, he sits alone with his notebook and lists the reasons he might not be gay: “I’ve had crushes on girls. I don’t care about fashion. I don’t have a lisp.” But Jamie is gay, and though he’s never acted on his fantasies, he has a very specific type: He likes beefy guys, grown men with beards and beer bellies.
“Big Boys” got its start playing LGBT and queer-friendly festivals, like London’s BFI Flare, Provincetown, Frameline and Outfest, but given the right exposure, it’s positioned to cross over in a big way. That’s because, however specific Jamie’s predilection, there’s something universal in his crisis. The gay community has a word for the category of guys that Jamie’s into: “bears.”
Sherman scores his first good wince by dropping that word while everyone’s standing around Jamie’s living room, getting ready to leave for the trip. His cousin Allie (Dora Madison) has brought along her boyfriend, a brawny bro named Dan (David Johnson III), who wears his baseball cap backwards and a T-shirt with one or more X’s before the L. When Jamie’s mom (Emily Deschanel) thanks the couple for taking her boys camping, Dan cracks, “I’m sure they’ll be fine. But, if not, we can always feed ’em to the bears.” Jamie misses the double entendre, but audiences won’t, since they’ve already observed Jamie scoping out the tall, husky guy who lives next door.
Jamie is a “big boy” himself, nearly twice the size of older brother Will (Taj Cross, terrific). The kid is clumsy and uncomfortable in his own body, like a puppy that grew up too fast and hasn’t adapted to its new size. There’s a purity to Jamie’s personality, which comes through in his excitement for drawing and cooking, and his overwhelming hunger for Dan’s approval. Jamie has no clue how someone like him could ever become — much less get to be with — the manly men he admires. (There’s an element of that same homoerotic psychology at play in Sundance breakout “Magazine Dreams,” though Sherman’s character isn’t nearly so tortured, landing closer to the squirmy end of the indie spectrum occupied by Mike White and Todd Solondz.)
Sherman’s smart to let subtext go unspoken, providing just enough background for audiences to sense that the character, who grew up without a dad or positive male role models, is struggling to reconcile conflicting messages about masculinity — this despite the fact that practically everyone accepts Jamie for the quirky, dorky kid that he is. Well, almost everyone. Jamie’s brother is a homophobic horndog who tries to pressure him into hooking up with two girls they meet at the campsite. Will goes after conventionally attractive Quinn (Emma Broz) while leaving Jamie to deal with relatably insecure Erika (Marion Van Cuyck, another of MVP casting director Kristi Lugo’s promising finds).
Considering the dozens of movies in which teen boys obsess about losing their virginity, there’s something truly special about the scene where Jamie tries to back out of “getting laid.” He pretends to be tipsy, but is so mindful of Erika’s self-esteem that he launches into a long spiel about how it’s “my fault that I’m so drunk.” Then he sneaks back and steals a raw hot dog from the cooler, as if trying to eat his feelings.
So many of the situations in Sherman’s script overlap with other movies in the overcrowded coming-of-age genre, but the ensemble seems so comfortable in their roles that even generic scenes that have no good reason for working — like everyone playing Taboo around the campfire or Dan taking off his shirt after Jamie skins his knee — feel convincing. Or convincing enough.
With low-budget “Big Boys,” Sherman crafts a memorable outing on limited means, brought to life by an unusually endearing cast. While the ending is “nice” enough (in the affirmational sense), it’s a little too easy, a vestige of the director’s short-film background. Jamie will be fine. Krasner, the breakout who plays him, seems all but certain to go on to big things. The real question is whether Sherman can scale up from here.