Tallgrass Film Festival Review: Straight Up

Attraction is a complicated thing. We find physical attraction simple to measure, purely drawn to someone because of some sort of animal magnetism in our brains that identifies a good breeding partner. However, humanity is more evolved than that and we’ve also developed connections and attractions that are emotional and intellectual. 

downloadStraight Up is the first full-length film from writer/actor/director James Sweeney. He’s playing one of the leads here, a neurotic homosexual named Todd that is experiencing an identity crisis. He’s starting to wonder if he’s straight since he’s never been able to have sex due to a dislike of bodily fluids that stems from a severe case of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Let’s also enter actress Katie Findlay into the conversation, cast here as Rory. Boy meets girl in a library and the chattery-but-awkward connection proves to be charming for both of them. They lose hours talking together, falling asleep holding each other, and working to hold onto a relationship. 

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Todd was very personal to James Sweeney. The script was drafted first in 2012 and it took him six years to get the film out of planning and into production. His own visual language paints the characters into life by use of camera tricks and aspect ratio. Straight Up is shot in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, commonly known as “fullscreen” to most, and it’s the way that television used to be aired (remember those boxy TVs?). By using this he’s able to literally put the couple in a box as they struggle to break out of one throughout the narrative, combatting the labels Todd seems desperate to apply to himself and Rory seems desperate to understand. The camera also splits its styles, with a handheld style every time the camera is alone with Findlay to showcase her more loose personality and a purely static view when on Todd to put his need for stiff, nitpicky personality quirks out there. When they’re together the two fuse, using dolly movement to convey how Todd grounds Rory and how she loosens him up. Sweeney’s use of wildly long takes keeps the focus on the relationship between the two performers and it creates a stunning elevation to the stylization, which otherwise skates close to looking like a television pilot due to budget constraints.

straightup_03The dialogue is very snappy and almost all of the timing is precious. This is highly entertaining but doesn’t always work. The director insists that it gives the film rewatchability; the things you missed the first time due to laughing over them being things you can catch on a second viewing. I would cite this as an issue. So much of the film’s dialogue is played for laughs and it can take away from some of the more important moments in the film. When we’re allowed to slow down and breathe things the film works on a much better level, the pacing able to really convey what is going on in the characters’ heads without the need for nonstop chatter. Don’t get me wrong, it’s impressive that Sweeney and Findlay can just rattle the dialogue off like that, but I thought it was a bit much and left some moments drowning. Another attendee stated to me that they believed even subtitles wouldn’t have been helpful as few can read at that speed. 

That’s not to say it doesn’t work to have dialogue like that. Todd meets Rory in a library, a scene that I think the two actors nailed, and it turns out that this was the first scene filmed. The two found that they had excellent chemistry and it’s such a cute interaction. I don’t know another way to describe it (well, maybe “adorable” would work too).

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James Sweeney and Logan Nelson during the Q&A after the film.

Composer Logan Nelson was in attendance at the screening last night to talk about scoring the film. I was overjoyed with this as film scores are one of my absolute favorite things in cinema and the guy delivered a fantastic one. There are songs woven into the fabric of the film and the score takes cues from them to make it feel organic and streamlined. Nelson wanted to use the score as a digital voiceover so that even when the characters aren’t talking (that’s not often) the music could convey what they were experiencing. I was psyched to learn that Logan Nelson is a Wichita native and recently won the award for “Best Young International Composer” at the World Soundtrack Awards in Ghent, Belgium. He’s a name to watch and I hope he breaks out. I see shades of composers like Mica Levi and Disasterpiece in him so…yeah, keep an eye on this kid.

I had a great time with James Sweeney’s Straight Up, charmed and delighted with a lot of what he’s doing and Nelson’s score. I hope this hits a wider platform in 2020 so that more of you can see it and I urge you to catch it at a festival while you can. They’ve said there will be screenings at over 15 festivals in October so hopefully it’s coming close to you soon!

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