Definitive sexual orientation is a burdensome proposition in the indie rom-com “Straight Up,” James Sweeney’s feature debut acting as writer, director, and star, where blurred labels and binary-defying fluidity guide the central relationship.
Lighthearted in tone yet intellectually intriguing, the L.A.-set film ponders valid queries about identity, even if they’re almost entirely sustained by dialogue.
Introduced via a rant on his disgust towards corporeal orifices during a session with his pricy psychoanalyst, professional housesitter Todd (Sweeney) quickly exhibits pronounced signs of having obsessive-compulsive disorder, multiple phobias, major brainpower, and overall inadequacy when dealing with social cues and expectations. Though mined for a few successful gags, his personality often comes across as forced quirkiness for the sake of humor that brings to mind “The Big Bang Theory’s” Sheldon.
Lack of intimacy, both physical and emotional, is at the heart of Todd’s current crisis. Unfulfilled with same-sex romance, he wonders whether a foray into straight dating could unblock the door to self-discovery and prevent him from spending the rest of his days alone (as he exaggeratedly puts it). Bystanders rule his curiosity as a stunt fueled by internalized homophobia, but the soft-spoken Marie Kondo-devotee pushes forward, meeting acidly funny aspiring actress Rory (Katie Findlay, FX’s “Man Seeking Woman”).
Enamored with quick-paced line delivery to accentuate the notion that these two characters’ thoughts are processed a mile a minute and loaded with wit, Sweeney has them recite run-on sentences to the point of exhaustion. Tucked away amongst the countless words in each statement, one may discern a handful of pungent zingers, but ultimately some of the substance is bound to get lost.
Bonding over documentaries and ardent discussions on which situations are actually ironic, Todd and Rory establish a hetero-affective connection that functions exactly as that of any other couple — except sexual contact is off the table. Conflict arises as Sweeney uses their arrangement to explore the weight put on erotic satisfaction between romantic partners. Is their love more profound than a friendship if they are not having intercourse? Can they be soul mates if they’re linked in every other way but that?
Concessions are made on both parts to test how much their fears are derived from prescribed assumptions. It’s the battle between what they feel for each other and what they believe their relationship should amount to that gives “Straight Up” its most memorable qualities. Beyond Todd’s exasperating peculiarities or Rory’s vocal disenchantment with acting, what’s at stake is the validity of the life they’ve started to build together in a world hell-bent to conclusively determine what they are, where they fall on the Kinsey spectrum, or if their sentiments for each other are real.
A visit to Todd’s parents (in which Randall Park plays his racist father, who advocates that only college-educated people should have children) gives way to one of Sweeney’s most genuinely affecting scenes in the role. Ecstatic over meeting Rory, dad hugs Todd, which makes the latter question if they would have had the same reaction if he’d brought home a boyfriend instead. Perhaps his father’s reaction was a sign of relief now that his son is living as a straight man, in which case it means that his gayness was never fully accepted.
Findlay serves as a taming agent for Sweeney’s loudly finicky portrayal. The actress’s pragmatic demeanor, even when faced with verbose text, balances out the barrage of neurotic outburst. Believably functional, their banter produces several laugh-out-loud moments seasoning the more dramatic bits.
Inconspicuously adding to the theme of ambiguity, the bright and airy modern spaces where Rory and Todd’s story unravels represent a perpetual transitory space. Todd lives with few ties to one place or one person until she appears. Carefully framed and shot by Greg Cotten (“Funny Story”) in 4:3 aspect ratio, the lived-in locations brim with symmetrical design and cleanliness, as if to reflect the protagonist’s organizational skills (even if they serve only to fix other people’s messes).
True to the unlabeled happiness Todd is after, “Straight Up” doesn’t conclude by assigning a new concrete definition of what these sexless sweethearts understand as being in love, regardless of the mechanics of their commitment. Sweeney’s movie lets it flow with all its moving parts and uncertain specificities, focusing only on their spiritually solid bond.