Saturday, 20 March 2021

DRAMARAMA - BFI Flare Film Festival 2021 review

In a typical middle-American town in 1994, a group of drama group friends unite for one last time to throw a costumed murder mystery party before they all leave for college. They each have their own fears about what the future might hold for them, but Gene (Nick Pugliese) is also wrestling with telling his life-long friends about his sexuality, afraid of how they will react. As the night progresses and loyalties among the group are tested, they all start to realise that in one way or another, they're all putting on a show.

As the characters all arrive at the parent-free house of Rose (Anna Grace Barlow) before she flies off for college the next day, they enter a safe space, a world of their creation where they are able to be vivacious show-offs who sing, dance and perform skits with one another, and where they can flex their theatrical muscles. Each in costume as a Victorian literary great (Sherlock Holmes, Alice in Wonderland, Ms Havisham, Mina Harker and Dr. Jekyll - or as close an approximation as they can get), there's no judgement from outside of their group of friends, allowing them to be as dorky as they want to be. This changes on the arrival of JD (Zak Henri), the whipsmart pizza delivery boy who encroaches on their space long enough to critique their costume choices and shake up the mood of the party by inviting Gene to a cooler gathering later on that evening.

At the outset of Jonathan Wysocki's coming of age comedy, I'll admit to worrying that I was going to find some - if not all - of the main characters insufferable in the way overly-earnest actor types can be, but to the credit of the core ensemble cast (Pugliese, Barlow, Nico Greetham, Megan Suri, Danielle Kay), as the film progressed and their "act" started to slip away, I warmed to each character as they revealed personal truths about themselves via the playful dares and challenges they set for each other. I have to say, I wasn't familiar with the game "Flashlight Homosexual" before, but it feels accurately like something a group of sexually repressed teenagers would have played at a house party in the 90s. Even for non-theatre types, there's a lot in the film to find relatable on a teen movie level. We've all been at that age where the future is a great unknown, and I'm sure can freely admit that as you're trying to work out who you really are there's an act that is put on to protect the stability of those friendships you've held for a long time.

This is revealed most accurately in Gene's story. Realising he is gay, but without the confidence or knowledge of how to say this to his best friends, he talks around the subject in code during their conversations, telling the religious Claire (Suri) he is now "agnostic" but without stating what has tested his faith; and having a heart to heart with closest friend Oscar about how he's been counselling a "colleague at work" who is gay, to gauge his opinion on it. Looking at it with 2021 eyes, it might seem a bit of a stretch that Gene's friends wouldn't put two and two together or entertain the possibility that one of their theatre group friends might be homosexual (with the possible exception of Ally, the cool, street smart girl of the group in a role that you could see Natasha Lyonne occupying two decades ago) but Dramarama succeeds in selling a real, non-pastiche version of 1994 to us with retro fashion & hairstyles and by having not one, but two They Might Be Giants songs on the soundtrack. It's a sweeter, more innocent time, albeit with conservative religious rhetoric ringing in the ears of young people. 

As Gene questions and tests his loyalty to those around him, Dramarama ticks a number of teen movie cliches on the way towards its satisfying finale, but it's a sincere, warmly nostalgic comedy-drama about the value of friendships, and having people you can truly be yourself with.

Verdict

3/5

Dramarama is screening as part of the BFI Flare LGBTIQ+ Film Festival. The full line-up can be found on the BFI Player here.

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