In the world of mainstream cinema, I am about to blaspheme … I was not a big fan of Broke Back Mountain. I thought far too much was made of a film starring well-known heterosexual actors whose ultimate message reinforced the idea of “homosexual tragedy”, ie regardless of whether you love openly or from a closet, you will pay and pay some more. Not only has actual queer cinema moved forward from this storyline but other films, including documentaries, have done much better justice to same sex attraction in “cowboy country.” Partially because the latter were not invested in a rural-urban divide that would subtly otherize rural landscapes; while, there are very real issues with isolation and violence in rural areas for gay people, there is equal dangerous policing in urban centers and some rural queer authors have argued that they feel safer in their rural communities where “allowances are made” than in the city where any given stranger could beat or kill them. To me, having lived in both types of communities, it is not an either or but rather a matter of degrees in which certain expectations and behaviors are acceptable in one local in order to survive and certain others in the other locale for the same reason. Finally, I always found it suspect how much sex Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams were reported to be having on and off set during the filming of that movie and how much emphasis was put on the heterosexual identities of the actors in general, and while homophobia still led to repeated censoring and snubs of the film, I don’t doubt the centering of heterosexual narratives around a “queer story” made the film capable of obtaining such success while better queer films by queer production companies and starring queer actors remained in obscurity. It also did not help that these films generally labor under massive budget constraints while Ang Lee’s joint was huge by indie standards.
Why does this matter in a review about a completely different movie?
This past week I finally saw Arizona Sky. It is is that low budget by and for queer people film that addresses rural same sex desire without the burden of urbanity and heterosexuality or the privilege of a Hollywood budget or machine. For many, the resulting gritty film quality, lack of needed transitions, and emphasis on monologues will make this film unwatchable but if you can look past the bells and whistles what you get it is a much more interesting story and a refusal to reinforce heterosexist gay tragedy narratives that we should all reject.
Successful movie director Jake finds himself increasingly disillusioned by the daily grind of Hollywood and longing to return to his home town and his best friend and former crush, Kyle. After his health starts to go bad, because of stress, Jake returns to rural Arizona to find that Kyle’s family’s health related economic decline means that he has never left town. The two re-kindle their friendship with the weight of a failed attempt by Jake to initiate a relationship between them on his last night in town between them. Kyle thinks Jake is straight and Jake thinks Kyle can’t possibly want to be with “just a small town cowboy who never even made it to college” but ultimately, they discover that they are both wrong.
What Arizona Sky lacks in bells and whistles, it more than makes up for in a compelling portrait of non-stigmatized rural poverty and small town life. Kyle, who had dreams of going off to college and becoming more secure in his life than he had been as a teen ended up forgoing college to care for his sick mother. He explains that he postponed college to care for her but then had to give up on the idea of leaving all together when her medical bills stacked up. Like so many people in modern N. America, Kyle had to sell his home and burn through his entire savings to pay her medical bills. When she died, he was left penniless and almost completely alone in the world.
Rather than hauling himself off to some trailer in the middle of nowhere where he avoided everyone and festered in his own misery, paging Ennis Del Mar, he took odd jobs around town and rented a small trailer between his aunt and cousin’s house. While he had tried to get married, his fiance ultimately left him without giving a reason. Kyle assumed that it was because he “had nothing to offer” but a life of hard work, lived pay check to pay check. Despite his own self-esteem issues about his intelligence and his prospects, Kyle built a life in which he was essential to the town, including helping his less fortunate neighbors stay afloat, all the while regretting the moment he had turned Jake down.
In less capable hands, Kyle would be noble poor, coming across as some grunting saint of few words but great promise. Instead, Director Jeff London and Jayme McCabe gives us a character who is quietly accepting of the challenges of rural, poor, life, the same way people who actual live it would be. His kindness is neither meant to highlight his exceptionalism nor to emphasize rural difference. Instead, as the character explains, the sign of a great life is in the connections and kindnesses. Where the character falters is in the delivery of the lines, which are tight lipped and almost grunted. I think this is a direct reflection of the better known Ennis character in Broke Back and the mistaken idea that rural cowboys chew their words into almost incomprehensible short hand.
When Jake re-enters his life, Kyle struggles with how to tell him that he has longed for him all these years. He is afraid not because of internalized homophobia, which he has mostly long sense put to bed, but rather because Jake has already left. Kyle’s character helps the viewer shift their gaze from the common narrative of how urban queers come back home to rescue those left behind to one of how rural or small town folks who like their lives react to those who have “moved on.” In other words, it is a story that centers migrant-effected communities rather than urban success stories.
In the process of sorting out his feelings, Kyle also confronts his family. His aunt, who has quietly encouraged the two boys to become re-acquainted, tells him that his happiness is more important than any social norms. She talks to him about the contrast between his commitment to his family and hard work in the town on the one hand and the profound loneliness he feels when on his own. Her insight shocks him but also paves the way for him to let go of his fears about both choosing to be with Jake openly and daring to ask Jake to love him back.
His cousin is not so open. When he discovers the two in bed together, he flips out. In a scene that suffers from the film’s low budget, Kyle’s cousin runs through a range of emotions including threatening to get his gun, before ultimately saying he will have to come to terms with Kyle’s choices. Like the scene with Kyle’s aunt, these moments ring true precisely because they are so subtly imagined (if not subtly executed). They resist the urge to fall back on “good old boy” stereotypes all the while retaining some of the truths that feed into them.
As for Jake, he is less well executed but better acted by Eric Dean. For reasons that are never explained, Jake travels with his straight roommate Brian to Arizona and then leaves Brian to fill his days with take out, motel porn, and chasing girls at the local bar. He completely misses Kyle’s attempts to re-kindle their missed opportunity on their first night which is explained away later as Jake being afraid Kyle was going to ask him if he was gay before he was ready to tell him.
Where Jake’s character succeeds in this film is both in the better honed acting of Dean and his complete commitment to taking responsibility for leaving Kyle behind and wanting to re-new their friendship no matter what form it takes. While Jake registers the poverty and slow decline of Kyle’s life, he never judges or pathologizes it, instead, noting how his fear of talking to Kyle throughout the years meant that he robbed him of a best friend to help shoulder the burden when his mother was dying or his bills weren’t getting paid. He also does not judge Kyle for being afraid when they were kids or for taking it slow now that they are adults. Where lesser films would have filled Jake’s dialogue with judgments about rural life and rural homophobia, director and writer London simply writes their reunion as a realistic return to each other. Like any relationship, after a long absence and an awkward attempt to hook up, Kyle and Jake need to get to know each other again and come to terms with the risk of rejection they have already felt with one another, nothing more, nothing less.
Arizona Sky is the kind of low budget, choppy, occassionally poorly acted, film that many in the queer community have gotten tired of going to see. We do deserve films with the economic capital of Broke Back Mountain, but let’s face it, for most queer Directors and/or queer stories this is still all we are going to get because Hollywood isn’t interested. If you can let go of these complaints and instead focus on the storyline and the characters, you will be delighted by the subtle and moving performances of both main and supporting characters.
Rather than focusing on the supposed glamor of Jake’s Hollywood life or the supposed backwardness of Kyle’s rural one, Arizona Sky gives us two young men who simply long for love and companionship that reflects their rural roots. It gives us a much more realistic view of rural life and of people trying to hold on to love with one another in the face of multiple barriers. While I am not sure I would want to watch McCombe munch his words again, his performance and the film overall left me with a profound sense of satisfaction. Finally, a gay cowboy movie that reflected rural life without all of the urban hang ups of Hollywood. If only they had the same money Ang Lee had, I would be able to highly recommend this movie as an alternative to Broke Back. As it is, if you haven’t seen it there is much to recommend it.
Arizona Sky is available on Netflix or for purchase.