Latter Days (2003)
★★ / ★★★★
One scene perfectly showcases why “Latter Days” does not work as a convincing human drama. Christian (Wes Ramsey), having just confronted by his love interest (Aaron played by Steve Sandvoss) of the possibility that there might not be anything else to him other than being a physically beautiful party boy, visits a man named Keith who is dying of AIDS (Erik Palladino). For a while, Christian and Keith are provided dialogue with spark; the screenplay introduces the idea that Keith is a reflection of Christian should the party boy continue the path he’s on. But notice how the scene ends. A psychic or magic element is introduced which completely derails the grounded human angle.
This lack of restraint is pervasive, particularly in the third act in which drama on the level of soap opera takes over. So much is going on that at some point we lose or fail to appreciate the passage of time—necessary because lovers Aaron and Christian are supposed to be fighting their own seemingly insurmountable challenges. Aaron must deal with his homophobic and devoutly Mormon family who would rather have a dead son than a gay one; Christian must learn to be alone and possibly move on from the man he thought he loved. On paper there is conflict, but much of the story’s power fails to translate on screen. And just as suddenly, the picture simply… ends and it feels like all problems are solved.
It is a shame because Sandvoss and Ramsey share good chemistry. The script sounds forced from time to time, but the actors are true professionals in that they commit and inject a real sense of joy, especially in some of the awkward-sounding confrontational exchanges. Their charisma, together and apart, is so strong that despite the shortcomings of the screenplay, we come to appreciate that there is more to the repressed Mormon missionary and the party animal who begins home a different man every night.
Another weakness: the work fails to communicate why Aaron’s religion is important to him. We see him studying the Bible and memorizing scriptures, but what is it about his faith that helps to define him as a person? Having come from Idaho and being raised by religious parents isn’t good enough. To answer the question is to separate character from caricature.
In regards to Christian and his party-loving ways, this character is more defined. He recalls a heartbreaking memory about his father who took him hunting. The father believed that if his boy killed an animal, it would make him a man—it would stop him from becoming queer. This memory gives us enough information to consider why Christian lives the way he does. The connection between his past and present is touching and beautiful, but I will not detail it here.
Supporting characters are cardboard cutouts. We learn not one interesting detail about Aaron’s fellow Elders played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Rob McElhenney. And even less when it comes to Christian’s friends and co-workers at the restaurant, one of whom is played by Amber Benson. Jacqueline Bisset plays the restaurant owner; there is whiff of enigma in her Lila, but I think it is because she is the most subtle performer of the bunch. Those eyes tell a story. She need not say a word to capture our attention. I wish the screenplay adapted her elegant approach.
Written and directed by C. Jay Cox, “Latter Days” did not move me emotionally. I recognize a few of its strengths. I recognize, too, that the love scenes may be titillating for some. The actors’ built bodies are well-photographed, the lighting sets up the right mood, and they do not end too quickly nor do they wear out their welcome. But the storytelling must be strong. It must be told with focus, energy, and grace. It must be paced well. Otherwise, nearly everything sticks out like elbows.