★ / ★★★★
The failure of “Stonewall,” written by Jon Robin Baitz and directed by Roland Emmerich, lies in the fact that it never gathers the dramatic momentum required to show the audience why the Stonewall riots is arguably the most important event that triggered the gay liberation movement in the U.S. It is curious because the film has essentially two chances to build a cathartic climax using the lead protagonist as the conduit of a revolution.
Danny Winters (Jeremy Irvine) is an all-American teenager from Indiana who runs away to New York City a few months prior to his first year in Columbia University. A series of flashbacks reveal that his reason for leaving home is homophobia from his peers and friends at school, even from his own family. During Danny’s first day in the big city, he is befriended by a colorful street hustler named Ray (Jonny Beauchamp). But NYC is no safe haven. It turns out that homophobia in the city is magnified, sometimes violent.
There are many scenes that ought to have been rewritten because the dialogue comes across corny, forced, and downright silly. Irvine, a performer who is proficient when it comes to delivering subtle emotions and building layers to his characters the longer the camera rests on his face, looks awkward, a fish out of water, barely able to make sense of what his character wishes to communicate or accomplish. The script’s overall disconnect is so palpable, during the key Stonewall sequences I found myself either laughing out loud or burying my face in my hands out of shame and disbelief.
The picture hopes to make a tribute to the unsung heroes of the Stonewall riots, but none of them are particularly engaging or interesting. Danny interacts with various LGBTQ street kids, older gay males who wish to make a change through a more peaceful means, and policemen with varying motivations, but these scenes are not engrossing, merely decorations to service the plot. It would have been an interesting approach if the lead character had been muted at times, serving as an accessory, when the figures with whom we are supposed to pay attention to are front and center. Instead, just about everybody is so dull, they end up blending into one another.
A few flashbacks command a whiff of resonance but they are evanescent. There is a level of genuine yearning in the moments between Danny and his secret lover from school (Karl Glusman), but it is clear that what they have—whatever it is—will lead only to pain and heartbreak. Thus, I was somewhat moved by Joe and Danny’s reunion toward in the end—one in chains while the other is free. These two souls might have spent their lives together in another place and time. But not in this story.
“Stonewall” paints a rather bland picture when it should have been full of color, personality, and, perhaps most importantly, rage. Halfway through the film I considered how filmmakers like John Cameron Mitchell or Bernardo Bertolucci might have taken the material to more daring, complex, vibrant, and emotional avenues.