Writer-director Christopher Munch has been a stalwart of the
Sundance Film Festival since his debut feature, THE HOURS AND TIMES,
premiered in 1991. Over the years his diverse output, which includes
THE COLOR OF A BRISK AND LEAPING DAY and THE SLEEPY TIME GAL, have
marked him as one of independent film’s most daring and individualistic
movie makers. So perhaps some slack can be cut for HARRY AND MAX, an
otherwise unmistakable misstep.
When the film played at the 2004 NewFest in New York, it was clearly
one of the most controversial entries, sparking all sorts of discussion and
comments. As a film critic, I have to admit that overhearing what others
felt about this intriguing, difficult and disturbing movie was fascinating.
Before the screening, there was some gossiping that Munch may have
utilized some real-life models for this story of two pop idol brothers
struggling with a dysfunctional family. After the showing, the talk went
directly to the heart of the drama: a key revelation in the story that
crosses the line into the taboo.
Munch takes a very freewheeling approach to his story. Harry (Bryce
Johnson, best known for the cult TV show “Popular”) is a twentysomething
former member of a boy band struggling in the music industry to move
beyond his teen idol status. Younger brother Max (Cole Williams) is
embarking on his own solo career, partly to please their overbearing
mother, partly to compete with his brother. As the film unfolds, the siblings
connect for a long awaited camping trip in the San Gabriel Mountains.
Complicating matters is the fact that Max has maintained a relationship
with Harry’s ex-girlfriend Nikki (Rain Phoenix).
The first half of the movie is more or less a road trip, with the brothers
moving from subjects like show business and the music industry to darker
issues. Unlike the seemingly heterosexual Harry, Max is gay, a situation that
could jeopardize his standing as a nascent poster boy for pre- and post-
pubescent young girls. Harry, for his part, is struggling with a failing career,
an unhappy girlfriend and a desire to drink himself into oblivion.
The turning point for the film, and the most controversial aspect of the
film, occurs during the camping trip when it becomes clear that the
brothers have experimented sexually with one another. From there, the
film devolves into a series of set pieces that document how each brother
progressively spins out of control. Harry seeks out an older male teacher
(Tom Gilroy) with whom Max had a relationship, but not for the reasons
that one might expect. Max, for his part, makes an attempt to go straight
with Nikki, a situation that doesn’t sit well with his older brother.
The film’s coda, a reunion between the brothers several years on,
ends the film on a decidedly sour note. Bryce Johnson and Cole Williams
deliver strong performances and attempt to make the material palatable,
but there’s an “ick” factor that causes most audiences to reject the film.
Michelle Phillips turns up in a cameo as the boys' controlling mother.
The passionate and heated discussions I overheard after the film’s
screening made it clear that this is very touchy subject that most felt did
damage to the cause of gay men and lesbians.
Munch squandered what might have been an intriguing opportunity
for a strong dramatic statement by veering off into the realm of the
taboo. If he was setting out to stir the pot, he more than succeeded, but
at what price?
Running time: 75 mins.
MPAA Rating: None (sexual themes, language, drug
content, brief nudity)
|Harry and Max