Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Rhys Chapman | Wonderkid

was there ever any question?

by Douglas Messerli

Matt Diss (screenplay, based on a story by Rhys Chapman and Terence Corless), Rhys Chapman (director) Wonderkid

On this day when the news reports that the Las Vegas Raiders’ US football team’s defensive end player Carl Nassib is the first active National Football League to openly announce that he was gay, perhaps it would be perfect to talk about British director Rhys Chapman’s 2016 short film Wonderkid about a soccer prodigy suffering from his agent’s insistence that he remain closeted for a while longer, despite the fact that his teammates begin to suspect him of being gay.

      But I should just back up a moment to register what my friend John Weir expressed on Facebook after Nassib’s announcement. Surely, he wondered this cannot be the only active US football player to announce that he was gay, coming as it does so very many years after Stonewall and so many other sports players’ previous revelations?

      I fell similarly. So very many fictional films about gay figures have appeared over the years. And even more importantly there have been a number of important documentary films about gay, lesbian, and transgender sportspeople. In 1997 TV presented a film Breaking the Surface: The Greg Louganis Story about the life of the famed gay diver. The US dramatic film by Robert Towne on the life of track star Patrice Donnelly, Personal Best was a popular LGBTQ film in 1982. And in 2003 Thailand director Ekachai Uekrongtham’s Beautiful Boxer told the story of transexual Parinya Charoenphol Muay Thai fighter, actress, and model.

       Within the new century a substantial number of films spoke of the hidden lives of gay individuals who played sports, among them Walk Like a Man: A Real Life Drama About Blood, Sweat & Queers (2008) about the Australian gay rugby union; the US documentary Out to Win, directed by Malcolm Ingram, concentrating on such figures as Jahn Amaechi, Billy Bean, Jason Collins, Wade Davis, Brittney Griner, Billie Jean King, David Kopay, Conner Mertens, Martina Navratilova, and Michael Sam—all significant athletes; Battle of the Sexes (2017) documented the noted tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, which occurred before King had publicly come out, but certainly hinted of her lesbiansm the film; and that same year John Carey and Adam Darke documented in Forbidden Games: The Justin Fashanu Story the experiences of the British gay soccer player; Canadian director Paul-Émile d'Entremont’s 2019 film Standing on the Line concerned issues of homophobia in the world of sports, featuring speed skater Anastasia Bucsis, soccer player David Testo, and hockey player Brock McGillis. And there were others, as well several real-life events, such as the great 1976 Olympic decathlon winner Bruce Jenner coming out as the transgender Caitlyn Marie Jenner.

        Despite the obvious bravery of Nassib’s revelation, one wanted to ask, where were all the others, and what is holding them up from simply speaking out honestly? If they were all to speak out there might be no problem for anyone in the future. But by being quiet they had made Nassib’s announcement  news.

        Given the story that Chapman’s Wonderkid presents, however, one perceives just how difficult coming out is, at least in the high pressure world of the European soccer teams. From the very first frames of the movie, we sense that our young hero, Bradley McGuire (Chris Mason), has problems. Sitting in his locker room before a game he seems not only dour but unable to move until his friend and. as we soon discover agent, Johnny (Leeshon Alexander) appears to offer him a few words,  speaks to another player—evidently about some previous grievance—and simply encourages his player with a hug. On the field our wonderkid is easily distracted by the shouts of the crowd, in particular one fan who first describes him as a “wanker,” and when McGuire slips, follows it up with shouts of “faggot.” In the next few minutes the “wanker/faggot” scores, evidently winning the game for his team as he dances to the cheers of the entire stadium; but the boy is still angry, turning back to the fan and calling him out for his remarks in front the cameras, while we hear in the background the response of the newscaster worrying about the wonderkid’s “personal issues” that seem to get in the way of his great playing.     

      Unfortunately, we don’t quickly get a full idea of what these “personal issues” might entail. We are offered only little glimpses of these problems, particularly since most of the time the wonderkid remains glumly silent. Back in his hotel room we witness a brief interchange with Johnny in which he wonders whether or not he had been able to get his parents to attend the soccer match (the parents were once again absent) and his complete disinterest in joining the others for a after-game party. Back at training we again sense difficulties between him and the other players, especially the team captain who berates him for not having attended their party. His teammates tease him about the initiation he will have to undergo soon, since he has just been promoted in the league; but it clear he wants no part of their “girls and drinking” suggestions. When they begin to scrimmage, McGuire trips the captain, who comes back at him anger, to which our boy challenges him as he leans forward: “Do you want to kiss me?” 

      After, Johnny, slamming a locker room door shut, berates him for his on-field antics, ending a sentence he quickly shifts away from speaking, his player demands he finish: ...”Say it, man it up, say it.” When Johnny spits out the words, “all right, you’re fucking bender” we finally catch on that the wonderkid’s central problem is that he is gay. Their shouts attract a pounding at the door, and they are terrified that someone might have overheard their conversation. And suddenly we begin to perceive why this kid can find no joy in the one thing he does so beautifully, kick the ball into the goal. He is not allowed to truly express himself in any other manner.

      In the next few scenes we discover McGuire has yet other problems. As he refuses to answer knocks at the door, to pick up the telephone, to attend further training sessions, and lays out two sets of uniforms, perfectly packed, and carefully piled up precisely into near packets from which he keeps removing even the slightest of creases, we begin to perceive that he also suffers from OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). As much as he hates Johnny’s control over him, he still needs him to be there to reassure him, to calm him as he attempts, each time, to enter the world of public from which he innately feels alienated.

      Not only does he desire to be free, to find people with whom he might relate and become sexually involved, but is terrified of moving out of his safety zone. Together the two force into being a kind of prisoner, of himself both as a compulsive being and a homosexual.

      Even more abuse piles up as messages on his phone: “If rumors are true, can see why he didn’t like that bloke calling him a faggot. I’d kill whichever cunt said I was a bender”; Who the fuck paid that amount to you? Let’s hand him over to ISIS immediately”; “My mate said someone slagged off his family. Something about his mum or something? Wish he’d nutted the cunt”; “Will everybody buy that I’m sick for a week or two?”; “See Judas is up to his old tricks.” etc.

      He finally answers a call from a gay dating connection, sets out two pair of clothes, dresses, and stands waiting at the designated spot. But the minute he meets his date, Olly (David McGranaghan) a gang of four passersby recognize him and point at him going into a gay bar, and he no choice but to bolt.

        He jumps into cab only to be recognized by the driver, who drives him for nothing back to the hotel. Finally, at their next meeting Johnny agrees that they will be able to tell the public soon, “but not yet.” And then, he half jokes, “gay magazines, gay porn,” as to suggest he’ll financially abuse his as a gay as much as he has as a closeted one. “But you have trust me on this, you have to wait,” he repeats. Waiting at the kid’s age is like suggesting he postpone his sexual activity until middle age.

      With McGuire left alone at the bar, the bartender finally makes his move, lightly touching the boy’s fingers as he goes to pay the bill. He joins him in his room and, even though he knows who the hotel guest is, he calmly shares a night with what presumably is glorious sex with the footballer. Trouble is that Johnny has observed them entering the wonderkid’s room. And when the time comes the next morning for him to pick up McGuire and escort him and his dozens of fears to the stadium, he does not show up. A woman drive shows up in his stead, and he fear that our hero will simply be unable to get it together to play the game.

      He arrives in the locker but the taunting continues, the captain asking has he yet selected a song for his initiation: “Dancing Queen?” “Be Yourself,” Pet Shop Boys, George Michael—all gay or with gay insinuations. McGuire unpacks his kit, and indeed does have a shirt within saying “Be Yourself” with the LGBTQ rainbow flag printed over the words. You almost wonder if he might wear it under his soccer uniform as a talisman or, just perhaps, wear as his jersey to out himself to the general public.

      Suited up, they prepare their march to the field, the wonderkid closing his eyes to steel himself for what is ahead. Suddenly he feels a hand grasping his, and when he looks across and down he seems a young girl, an escort to take him to the game in he which apparently plays phenomenally well. All we hear is the newscaster shout, “Ahhhh what a player, what a man! Was there ever any question,” as if answering Stein’s last words upon her deathbed.

      Hopefully it represents the beginning of a new life for the kid.

    Several major donors, Ian McKellen and the Kevin Spacey Foundation, helped this film to come into being.

Los Angeles, June 22, 2021

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

  

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