Q. You take the stars of Glee, Teen Wolf and Twilight and what do you get?
A. A very pleasant surprise.
American independent queer-themed films all too often contain poor scripts, inadequate acting, and direction of the level of a first year film student. Presumably, this is the reason why so many gay indie films seem compelled to present viewers with full frontal nudity and lengthy sex scenes – they need something to attract the audience at just the point when we’re about to turn the DVD off and realise it was another waste of £10.
Bearing this in mind, I came to White Frog without great expectations. Sure it had got decent reviews, and a solid score on IMDB but, like others, I’ve realised that the high score of most queer indie films are actually due to friends of the actors and director. However, White Frog really is quite a revelation. The first thing we notice is that it actually has the quality of a film, rather than the look of a home movie shot on a £300 camcorder. The second thing we notice is that one of the bigger stars of the film is killed off within around 8 minutes. The third thing we notice is just how good this script is, and the fine performances from the actors.
Now, I confess that, as a 39 year old man, I know very little about Booboo Stewart other than the fact that he played a regular character in the Twilight films and that I happened to see him in an awful film called Hansel and Gretal: Warriors and Witchcraft. To be honest, I felt sorry for all those involved. I confess that I was, therefore, rather stunned by his performance in White Frog as the young man with asperger’s syndrome, coming to terms with the death of his beloved brother and learning of the brother’s secret life. All too often, such characters can veer into unintentional parody, but this is extremely well done and he expertly carries the film. In fact all of the younger members of the cast are superb, most notably Gregg Sulkin as one of the deceased brother’s friends. The adult characters do not seem so well written or, in some cases, acted. The parents of the two brothers seem painted with just a bit too broad a stroke to be as convincing characters as the teenagers. That said, Joan Chen’s breakdown scene following the death of her son is played to be perfection.
The script skirts around the typical pitfalls of a queer indie film, avoiding histrionics and soap opera-like dialogue for the most part. I also feel rather guilty calling this a “queer indie”, for the film is much more than that, and certainly has much more appeal than to just a gay audience. This is as much a film about asperger’s syndrome and the need to be yourself as it is about homosexuality (more so, in fact). Considering how rarely film deals with mental health issues (especially films aimed at younger audiences), the tackling of the subject is in itself most welcome. But, much more than this, it puts a human face on the condition that so many of us know so little about (myself included). (My lengthy blog post on recent portrayals of mental health issues in film can be found here: https://silentmovieblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/mental-illness-comes-out-of-the-celluloid-closet/)
White Frog isn’t a perfect film. The pacing in the first third is a little slow, and perhaps we should have been allowed to get to know Harry Shum Jr’s character a little more before his early demise (Shum is quite brilliant, by the way, despite his minute amount of screen time). But these are really minor gripes with a film that manages to be engrossing, touching and totally believable. It’s rather sad that a Google search on the film finds as many articles about the fact that Shum appears with his shirt off in the movie as articles commenting on how good the film is. This is, after all, a classy little effort dealing with a number of serious issues and being able to do so without a Hollywood studio breathing down the necks of those concerned making sure the film is either commercial or ticking the right boxes for the award season. Great stuff.