Last night, PJ and I watched Strapped, a small gay independent film written and directed by Joseph Graham. Ben Bonenfant plays a male prostitute who easily adapts to each client’s needs. After coming home with a John — literally, since the character’s name is John — the hustler becomes trapped in an apartment building, meeting some of its various tenants. He sleeps with some of them, but he learns a little more about himself from each person he meets. Here’s the trailer:
We first see him with a client who tells him a story about the guy he loved when he was a teenager in Russia. Bonenfant’s character immediately replies with his own revealing tale of childhood abandonment. He then meets a queen, instantly becoming a queen himself and pretending to be a version of Keanu Reeves’s character in My Own Private Idaho. He hooks up with a closeted married guy while pretending to be straight himself, blows a guy at the queen’s party, and gets fucked by an older gay activist who’s grateful for the opportunity to have sex with a such a hot guy. He also runs into a guy who just wants to kiss and have his soul penetrated.
The Hustler–we never know his name in the film–adapts to each client’s needs, but he also shares tender moments with most of the men, connecting with them in some deeply personal way. But is it really connection? Or are the tender moments just another part of his professional toolbox?
Bonenfant plays the Hustler as a chameleon who initially just seems like a really good whore. He’s beautiful, though not in a porn star sort of way (which I really like about this casting), but he’s also really smart. He’s even well-read. It’s clear that his looks and his intelligence combine to make him really good at his job.
But it also becomes clear as he reacts to his meetings with each new client that the Hustler is more than (and wants more than) a good fuck. By the time he hooks up with the older activist, the line between performance and reality has gotten increasingly blurry. When the two men talk about the Hustler’s sexuality–whether he’s gay or straight–the conversation becomes interestingly real. He’s no longer just telling his john what he wants to hear; he’s reflecting on the lessons he’s learned from each of the men he’s met that night.
By the time he’s met the kisser, the Hustler has to make an important choice. As a rule, he doesn’t kiss his clients; it’s a way for him to remain detached from the ‘work.’ He has to decide whether kissing is just another sex act that one can perform for money with no emotional consequences. His response to this john has the potential to reshape the Hustler’s entire life and identity.
Strapped is really an allegory rather than a realist narrative. The apartment building’s maze-like structure is a metaphor for life and the Hustler is a kind of every man. He stands for any gay man, and the movie asks us to ponder who we decide which rooms (i.e., relationships) to enter, which ones to leave (and when), and which ones to stay in. As long as you give yourself over to the metaphor and stop looking for realism, this movie is really interesting and very enjoyable. I really liked it.
Bonenfant is excellent in this role. He is beautiful to watch on-screen, but it’s actually less of a physical beauty than you might expect. His body for example, is good, but it’s not that of a gym queen or gay porn star. There’s a normalcy to it that heightens his status as gay everyman. What he brings is a likability and intelligence to the character that it becomes completely believable that every man in this apartment building wants to have sex of some sort with him.
I also really liked the direction and writing. Initially, some of the dialogue, especially quotes from Shakespeare and other works of high culture, seems completely unrealistic for a hooker and his johns to be spouting, but that all quickly becomes part of the allegory.
I also appreciated that this film evoked many of the clichés of gay independent cinema–coming out, gay bashing, old men lusting after younger men, and drugs–but was interested not in reveling in them but in interrogating them. It seemed to be evoking them in order to argue for other choices.
And finally, I liked most of the music in the film. Most noticeable to me was Jay Brannan’s “Housewife,” which I love. The trailer also includes a song that I’ve started to love, Halou‘s “It Will All Make Sense in the Morning,” which I’m going to make my song of the week:
Overall, I thought Strapped was an entertaining, thought-provoking movie. Definitely more than I expected! I highly recommend it.