Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Brian Tognotti | Just Ask Him

charting the territory

by Douglas Messerli

Brian Tognotti (screenwriter and director) Just Ask Him / 2020

As I wrote in my 2021 essay in My Gay Cinema 2000-2009,  “Crossing the Divide,” even  young people who have come to terms with their LGBTQ identities, have further difficulties in what might described as charting the territory. Which of those to whom they are attracted night be available to approach for sexual contact, how to even bring up the issue in order to determine their reciprocity?

      The young Andrew (Donovan Napoli) of Brian Tognotti’s 2020 13-minute film Just Ask Him is facing precisely this problem. In the small, rural school which he attends he finds himself attracted to a new student, a soccer jock Ricky (Río Padilla-Smith) who begins the film my asking Andrew if he’ll by some tickets to support the team, stunning the boy for even being approached by the tall beauty. He starts up an eager conversation in which he says all the wrong things but at least strikes up a beginning conversation, curious to what has led to this unlikely meeting.

       His friend Joelle (Elsie Arisa) argues that the jock is not at all interested in her gay friend, particularly given the alienating attitudes of the other students, one of whom even steals the posters inviting their peers to the school dance as they speak. She tells her friend fix his broken “gaydar” and forget any infatuation he might be germinating for Ricky.  “We are the toxic gay duo of Central Valley High,” she reminds him, “and I don’t want you getting kicked down by some shit-kicker jock!” They have already defined themselves and accepted their roles as outsiders.

      Yet what strikes me is that even in this rural Northern California town which Joelle describes as “Dicksville,” Andrew almost immediately contemplates the possibility of asking the affable jock to the school dance. We are most definitely in some post-post-Stonewall territory.

      Like all unconfident gay boys lusting after school jocks—I personally know the territory—checks his physique out in the mirror, unsuccessfully attempts a pushup, and sits in his room instead fantasizing a romantic encounter between himself and his new obsession, his hilarious, tough-talking union-labor arbitrating mother (Sherri Heller) entering his room at the very moment he has puckered lips up to a soccer ball. She knows that look, and it’s not the studying kind: “You’re sad because you’re scared and when you’re sad you go into outer space inside your head.” Believe me, she insists, I know how you feel: “when I first met an arbitrator I almost peed my myself.” She continues, “But the things that scare you now will make you laugh in ten years,” an old wives’ tale that she has evidently repeated many times.

     But then she’s known as “Ninja Warpath,” never backing down from a fight, and Andrew just has to admit he’s not like his mother. “You came out!” she argues, “that took balls, especially out here in sticks!” This mother urges her son to go after the jock; if nothing else, to “just ask him.”  “Go for it! If you like boys, fantastic. If you like girls...all right. Nobody’s perfect.” It’s time for June Cleaver, of the late 50s and early 60s Leave It to Beaver TV series, to retire her pearls.

     But then she’s known as “Ninja Warpath,” never backing down from a fight, and Andrew just has to admit he’s not like his mother. “You came out!” she argues, “that took balls, especially out here in sticks!” This mother urges her son to go after the jock; if nothing else, to “just ask him.”  “Go for it! If you like boys, fantastic. If you like girls...all right. Nobody’s perfect.” It’s time for June Cleaver, of the late 50s and early 60s Leave It to Beaver TV series, to retire her pearls.

       Apparently, because it’s open to gay couples it’s been designated as such, which explains the interloper tearing the announcements away from the wall the film’s early scene. “What made you you think....,” Ricky grabs Andrew, as the wimp cringes, ready for a beating, “.....How’d you know? Was it something I said? You caught me checking you out, didn’t you? I could care less what these hicks think,” he continues, as long as recruiters see him play.

      “So you’re in the closet?”

      The real reason he ready to turn Andrew down, he admits, is that, even though he’s Latino, he can’t dance.

      Andrews suggests that they don’t have to dance. And he agrees to attend, not as Andrew fears at all ashamed to be seen with him. Recruiters? Well, a  great soccer player from bum-shit nowhere, is maybe not so attractive, but a great gay soccer player from the same place, well that’s worth noting.

      If Just Ask Him is far from a profound exploration of the gay experience, presenting its small tale almost as in a TV clip, in its mix of self-deprecation and daring-do attitude, it charts new territory. And at last the jock will show up to the dance without a princess on his arm and a crown on his head.

Los Angeles June 2, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Literature Review (June 2021).

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