★★★ / ★★★★
As John (David Arquette) sleeps outside on the grass, a fellow homeless person sneaks up to him and steals his lucky green sneakers. Inside one of them is the money he has saved up from turning tricks along Santa Monica Boulevard in the City of Angels. When John realizes that he has been robbed, it is too late: the man is already several yards away. Wanting to spend his twenty-first birthday, which coincides with Christmas, in the posh Park Plaza Hotel, it seems like he has no other choice but to hook up with more men within a certain time frame to prevent losing his reservation.
Written and directed by Scott Silver, “Johns” is able to take a look at a disreputable occupation, separate the young male prostitutes from their jobs, and treat them like people instead of objects. Silver’s writing and direction serve as a true beacon of hope among streets that look bright under the sun, at times deceptive in that we eventually get a chance to glimpse at the real face and repercussions of prostitution once John or his friends are picked up by total strangers.
At the same time, it is admirable that the strangers encountered are not portrayed as villains. It takes a lot of courage to show them as people who also deal with a lot of inner turmoil. There are times when we are allowed to feel sorry for some of the older men because they go through great lengths to hide who they are from their family–mainly their unsuspecting wives. By showing us a range of customers, the sense of danger never takes a backseat.
Instead of one relentless scene after another that involve violence of sorts, the film strives to deliver more by taking a look at the relationship between John and Donner (Lukas Haas). Donner has been only cruising the streets for seven weeks and he considers John as a mentor. On the surface, their relationship seems somewhat shallow, just two people who almost feel like they have to interact because they happen to perform the same job. As the picture goes on, however, we begin to feel and appreciate that what they have is a true friendship, perhaps even an attraction from Donner’s side. John may or may not be a homosexual but the answer is of little significance. What matters is although he does not like to admit that he cares for Donner, his actions prove that he does and we are held in suspense, wondering what can or will go wrong.
Although shot with realism so raw that we can hear the tired engines of vehicles passing by, there is a portentous ambience that hovers above the sunny streets. What is less effective, however, is the subplot involving two debt collectors (Terrence Howard, Nicky Katt) who constantly threaten the protagonist to pay the money he has stolen from a gangster. Their scenes run a bit long, often saying the same thing only with different words, which takes away time from more meaningful interactions between John and Donner. There is one very moving scene with Donner, a guy who is not at all keen about confrontation, standing up against the two men because he feels, as John’s best friend, that he must.
“Johns” could have easily turned out to be a very sleazy and meretricious picture but it is surprisingly sensitive. Donner’s selflessness, almost saint-like in his innocence, is one of the many reasons we root for the duo to leave Los Angeles, California and take the bus to Branson, Missouri. They are good for one another because even though they do not have much, they are capable of dreaming and working toward an alternative.