For his second feature, John Cameron Mitchell undertook an
intriguing idea to push the boundaries of mainstream film by including
sexually frank sequences that involved the couples actually engaging
in intercourse. We've been there before, but usually in foreign made
movies like
INTIMACY and 9 SONGS. In America, given the repressive
and conservative movements afoot, that Mitchell's film
made and released is something short of a miracle. That it happens
to be a very good film almost seems secondary, but that should really
be the point. This is a very fine film.

 SHORTBUS is set in a post-9/11, Bush-era New York and the
majority of characters are, for lack of a better word, unsatisfied.
Mitchell gets the sex out of the way right up front as he cross-cuts
between various individuals engaging in a variety of acts. There's
James (Paul Dawson), a gay man who after bathing, films himself
performing auto-fellatio while his voyeuristic neighbor Caleb (Peter
Stickles) looks on. We also meet married couple Rob (Raphael Baker)
and Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) who engage in sexual activity all over their
apartment (from the piano to the floor to the bed). And there's
the dominatrix Severin (Lindsay Beamish) who meets with a wealthy
preppy client (Jesse Hardman) in an apartment overlooking Ground
Zero. There's much moaning, grunting, and ejaculation before the
sequence is over. Eventually most of these characters will interact
in the main story.

 It turns out that Sofia is a sex therapist (although she herself
has never experienced an orgasm, despite repeatedly trying with her
husband). Two of her patients are James and his lover Jamie (PJ DeBoy),
a former child star having trouble adjusting to adult life. The men
are considering opening up their relationship to include a third and
they are seeking advice from a therapist. When Sofia confesses her
failure to them, they insist she accompany them to the titular
establishment, a sort of pansexual nightclub where patrons engage
in artistic and sexual pursuits, sometimes aided by drugged food.
The host of
SHORTBUS is Justin Bond (portraying himself and not his
drag alter ego of Kiki of Kiki and Herb). As Bond explains, the name
of the place was selected after the smaller vehicle that transports kids
with special needs or who have superior intellects. He also wryly notes
that the club is like "the 60s, only with less hope."

 At the club, James and Jamie meet Ceth (Jay Brennan) and
decide to initiate him into their lives (in a very amusing sequence
involving "The Star Spangled Banner" and odd body parts) although
neighbor Caleb isn't too happy with the addition of a third. Sofia
and Severin meet and agree to help one another; Sofia counsels the
dominatrix on who to be more trusting and open while Severin tries
to teach Sofia how to have an orgasm.

 There are some wonderful set pieces, such as a scene in a
closet where James and Severin exchange secrets, and an encounter
between Ceth and a former mayor of New York City who isn't named
but is clearly a stand-in for a real-life figure.

 The thing that makes the film is that Mitchell has layered the
story with levels of sadness. He is trying to trace the malaise back
to the events of 9/11 and it works in a very touching manner. This
is a film about a group of people who survived but feel guilty and
who desperately want to connect with another human being but
who somehow cannot.

 Mitchell worked with his cast to develop the various stories and
the improvisatory effort may not have resulted in a Mike Leigh sort
of drama but it has yielded wondrous moments. The cast is very
good with the best performances coming from Lee as Sofia (who
emerges as the heroine of the movie), Paul Dawson (who is the
real-life companion of co-star PJ DeBoy), and Lindsay Beamish.

 Mitchell has emerged as an intriguing and fascinating filmmaker.
I'm a huge fan of his directorial debut,
(what a movie musical ought to be), and I'm impressed with SHORTBUS.
It will be fascinating to see what comes next.

                 Rating:                B+
                 MPAA Rating:        None
                 Running time:       102 mins.

                 Viewed at the Broadway Screening Room
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.