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And Then There Were None

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BFI Flare

MOVIE REVIEW
Dramarama (2021)

What are five 18-year-old virgins to do their last night together before they depart for college? A night when they are entirely alone in a house that also has a swimming pool?

Well, whatever you’re thinking, they don’t do any of that. A lot of moms will be happy for this movie to be shown at a lot of theater-kid sleepovers, but it’s unclear if “Dramarama” wanted to be anything beyond a note-perfect nostalgia trip. On Twitter this critic routinely sees 20ish gay influencers, with complete sincerity, call anyone gay over 40 an “elder” and casually discuss how we’re still trapped in the closet since all our friends are dead from AIDS. Will anyone with that mindset actually care about how much things have changed since 1994, when “Dramarama” is set? Can someone who can’t believe gayness existed 27 years ago be able to sympathize with the struggles of someone in a world that can’t even see him in the first place, much less carefully sub-categorize him?

But the fact that gayness existed before the current moment isn’t the point “Dramarama” wants to make. Our five heroes – hostess Rose (Anna Grace Barlow), sardonic Ally (Danielle Kay), shy Claire (Megan Suri), nervous Gene (Nick Pugliese), and confident Oscar (Nico Greetham) – are a little gang of religious theater kids who are openly afraid of growing up. It’s so obvious they won’t get into any trouble Rose’s parents have gone out for the night; in fact, adults appear only as Charlie-Brownesque voices. Rose has organized a Victorian-themed murder mystery, so the others all arrive in costume and hunt for clues with enthusiasm while she carefully poses as a corpse on the kitchen floor, whether anyone’s looking or not. 1994 is absolutely perfectly re-enacted, not only in writer-director Jonathan Wysocki’s dialogue, but also in Devon Horn’s costumes. They quote “Fried Green Tomatoes” and joke about Jimmy Hoffa as they wander around Rose’s house drinking nonalcoholic cider. They wear tapestry waistcoats and perform a dance routine to “I Palindrome I” by They Might Be Giants, for heaven’s sake.

But then their pizza is delivered by J.D. (Zak Henri), who was a year ahead of them in school and who has a great time lording his age and cynical wisdom over them. He invites Gene and Ally, but not the others, to a party, and promises to return for them when his shift ends. With this cat very gently set among the pigeons, the five kids finally begin facing up to the changes about to overwhelm them. Gene is not going to college and can’t quite work out how to tell the others that he is gay – this is essentially the only through line of the plot, and why the movie was shown at B.F.I. Flare this year. Claire can’t decide if she should tell Gene she’s loved him for years, Oscar doesn’t want to admit he hasn’t gotten into an acting program, Ally wants to take Rose down a peg or two for being kind of a B-word doing the school year, and Rose is so certain about her glorious future studying theater in New York she can’t comprehend she has a lot of growing up to do.

They all feel much younger than 18, although their immaturity is explicitly the point. This is very clearly the last night of their innocence, where no one even thinks about touching the parents’ liquor cabinet and everyone averts their eyes if a dare goes a little too far. The core five actors are all excellent as exhausting drama babies of varying kinds of obnoxiousness, able to find the balance between self-centeredness and friendship, of excitement and nerves. The emphasis on how their religion affects their tolerance and understanding of sexuality is very much of its time – any sexuality, that is. Rose and Claire both agree sex should be saved for marriage, Oscar writes letters to a girlfriend he met at theater camp (she does not live in Canada, sadly), and only Ally picks up the clues Gene spends the night dropping.

But “Dramarama” is only concerned with making the world safe for anxious nerds, some of whom who happen to be gay. Is this really the clarion call it could have been? We live in a time when calling oneself a nerd is a badge of honor, and there are so many sub-categories on the rainbow flag the original theme of a rainbow’s inclusivity has been lost. Mr. Wysocki might have thought a little harder about how his story was going to land in 2021 and beyond and adjusted accordingly.

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