Charlie Plummer in Queer Awakening Drama – The Hollywood Reporter
near the end National anthem, D’Angelo Lacy in gorgeous drag sings a powerful a cappella rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” while an assembled group of Queer Rodeo contestants and spectators stand in reverent silence through this anthem of patriotism, hands on hearts. Given that a recently passed Tennessee bill banning drag shows looks to spread across red states and legalize discrimination against transgender people, the scene is only getting more poignant. It helps underpin the emotional heft of writer-director Luke Gilford’s gentle New Mexico story of self-discovery in a chosen family.
Gilford knows the place well. Growing up in the Southwest, he has fond memories of attending a rodeo with his father as a kid, only later realizing how narrow — white, Christian conservative, macho — mainstream rodeos can be. Returning after years of studying art and acting in New York, Gilford discovered the International Gay Rodeo Association, a welcoming subculture for the queer community, including people of color who were largely isolated from the traditional circle.
A beautiful blend of sawdust and passion.
He began interviewing and photographing people he met at IGRA competitions, eventually publishing a monograph titled National Anthem: American Rodeothe inspiration for the screenplay he co-wrote with David Largman Murray and Kevin Best.
The film is a bit weak, often slapping another song over another dreamy sequence rather than giving us more intimate access to the main characters — not to mention the secondary characters who make up a tight-knit queer family, most of whom don’t. Get the names. But the originality and uniqueness of the environment makes it engrossing.
Same goes for Charlie Plummer’s soulful performance in the central role of 21-year-old Dylan. The solitary type, he works as a day laborer on construction and farm businesses, but his loving nature is evident in the way he takes care of his beloved brother, Cassidy (Joy Dillion). Their single mother, Fiona (Robyn Lively), is a recovering alcoholic hairdresser with a history of dead-end relationships, most of whom are too busy on dates to attend to her sons’ needs.
When Dylan is hired by Rancher Baby (Renee Rosado) to do a two-week job on an out-of-town road, he’s the only non-Hispanic on the crew—apparently not the first time his alienation has been exacerbated by his non-Spanish speaking. But his curiosity is piqued the moment he passes the gates of the “House of Splendor” and sees two beauties dressed as chiffon prom queens galloping on horseback across the fields. They turn out to be Bibi’s cross-country girlfriend Sky (Eve Lindley) and non-binary farm mom Carrie (Mason Alexander Park), both of whom take an instant shine to warm but shy Dylan.
Skye’s gentle way with him sparks a cheesy sexual fantasy for Dylan, one of the few places the movie feels cheesy and simple. Likewise, his immediate ease among the House of Splendor’s extended family, which includes cheerful gay men working the gardens in pink overalls.
Sure, it’s nice to see an idyllic picture of such a safe space encapsulated in a quaint rural community. But the script would have given more substance to whether Dylan had previously been exposed to LGBTQ environments or had his sexuality questioned. All we really know about him is that he is the responsible, selfless adult in his house.
When Sky invites Dylan to the Queer Rodeo, where Pepe rides bulls and competes as a keg contestant, the passion between them is already swelled into mutual intoxication. He suggests it might be too boring for her, and Sky replies, “I don’t think you’re boring. I just think you haven’t met your people yet.” At the post-event entertainment, Sky lip syncs to Brenda Lee’s Break It to Me Gently and Dylan.
Back at the farm, the residents share a pot of mushroom tea, which breaks down any remaining barriers. Dylan gets into a threesome with Sky and Baby, but it’s clear she’s the main attraction for him. While Sky and Pepe have an open relationship, and Dylan mentions that anything between them is “just for fun”, her growing intimacy with the newcomer does not escape Pepe’s attention.
Bolstered by the engaging chemistry between Plummer and Lindley, it all seems to set up for a standard romantic triangle conflict that, to the filmmakers’ credit, doesn’t happen in the expected way. Fiona’s homophobia when Dylan takes Cassidy to a weekend rodeo, and the boy’s penchant for dressing up makes him anxious to put putty in the hands of his mother, Carrie. “are you a boy or a girl?” Cassidy asks them. Carrie replied, “I’m not.” “Cool,” said the kid, hopping into the back of the truck.
Again, the writers could be accused of looking at this perfect microcosm through rose-tinted glasses, but there is something disturbing about the blissful spontaneity with which Cassidy responds to an unfamiliar but nurturing environment and its perfectly agreeable inhabitants. After listening to pearl-stuck conservative politicians attack drag queens’ supposedly dangerous effect on children, it’s deeply moving to watch a near-neglected child go through such exhilaration. When Dylan first appeared in drag, showing himself to be a natural with a ferocious sexy shot of Melissa Etheridge’s “I’m the Only One,” Cassidy was among those cheering loudly.
Is Dylan’s sudden onstage confidence as psychologically compatible with the character as he was initially introduced? Not at all, but the film’s ideas about finding freedom, knowing oneself, and a new sense of belonging with an offbeat, non-judgmental family against the big, beautiful landscapes of New Mexico and the vast openness of nature are hard to resist. The same goes for filming LGBT people at home on the rodeo circuit, one of the bastions of traditional Americana.
Unsurprisingly, the romantic dream of Dylan’s time with Skye ends in heartbreak. But Gilford treats all of his characters with an infectious generosity of spirit—even Fiona gets redemption—that sweetens the film’s heartwarming moments. A few more details about who – apart from Sky and Carrie – are the residents of the House of Splendor and how they got there they may have provided National anthem More dimensions. But the nature of the cast and, in particular, the soulfulness that Plummer and Lindley bring to the main characters, makes for an interesting and positive story about personal liberation in a quaint country paradise.