Sunday, February 17, 2019

Nathan Adloff | Miles

into a possible paradise
by Douglas Messerli

Nathan Adloff, Justin D.M. Palmer (writers), Nathan Adloff (director) Miles / 2017

Over the years I have watched perhaps too many stories of LGBT boys and girls coming out during their late high school years. Frankly, given my own closeted condition during that same period, I have enjoyed most of these, and even feel there may need to be more—if for no other reason than to assure young men (and women) such as I was, that although in small towns they may feel utterly alone (I believe that in my high school class of about 100, I was the only gay, and in 1964-65 there were no possible models through which I might comprehend my feelings except in the general “world out there”) that there are many individuals in their same positions. Films like David Moreton’s Edge of Seventeen, Simon Shore’s Get Real, and, more recently, Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon—while presenting some of the darker aspects of the fear and sense of loneliness, even displaying the actual dangers involved—also make it almost seem “cool” to be a bright gay kid, knowing something about oneself that others simply could not imagine. I wish I’d had such films as a young boy; I looked instead, to the witty comedies of the 1940s and 1950s, reading between the lines of figures such as Carey Grant, Rock Hudson, James Dean, etc.

      Yet, while watching Nathan Adloff’s 2016 film Miles yesterday, I became a little frightened that the genre was perhaps wearing itself thin, or, at the least, was now a bit dated.
      Clearly, Adloff’s comedy/dramedy (as Los Angeles Times critic Katie Walsh described it), based evidently on his own experiences, is well-intentioned. And this time around, the 1999-situated story has more than a few brushes with the darker aspects of being in a school in Springfield, Illinois while desiring to be instead in the big city of Chicago to the north.
     Unlike me at this age, Miles (the talented Tim Boardman) knows precisely how he is different from most of his classmates: he wants to be a movie director and he’s most definitely attracted to his same sex, even if this film shows no actual sexual scenes. For Miles, it appears, his only solution is to communicate on his now rather odd-looking “You’ve Got Mail”-like computer with his luverboi217 correspondent, describing himself as SmallTwnboi_17.
      There are also very few villains in this work. Miles, in his senior school year, has an excellent relationship with his mother, Pam (a great Molly Shannon), and serves in the school as a beloved AV assistant. At nights he works the projector at the local movie theater. Generally, he seems to be a very well-adjusted and well-liked. His mother is also one of his teachers.
      The only true villain of this work is Pam’s husband (Stephen Root), who virtually ignores his patient wife and treats his son, who describes his dreams of attending Columbia College in Chicago, to which his father responds that he can only go Springfield Community College. Miles is determined to leave what he describes as his sleepy town rather be locked, like so many others including his mother, within its confines.
      One almost roots (sorry for the pun upon the actor’s last name) for his father’s death, which occurs with a sudden implosion of his heart, soon after—a symbol clearly for the emptiness of his love. And at the funeral itself Miles’ mother opens up to her son, admitting that she (and her son as well) has long known of his affairs and near complete ignorance of their own lives. What she and Miles are not prepared for is that he has used their meager savings for Miles’ college education to buy a new car for his current young girlfriend. It comes as a shock to Pam, who has clearly devoted her whole life to family, and, obviously, a terrible disappointment for a young man eager to move on.

     Yet Miles, seemingly unchallenged by even these dire circumstances, simply seeks out possible scholarships that will allow him to make his escape. The only one that seems possible is an athletic award for something the director has not yet prepared us for: volleyball. Evidently Miles (the movie has been hiding the fact) is a great volleyball player. The only problem is that his high school has only a woman’s volleyball team.
     When queried, the dubious but sympathetic woman’s volleyball coach admits that when a young woman attempted to join the football team, they had little choice but to allow her to join. And so too, after a tryout, is Miles allowed to join to volleyball team,
     Soon the school is winning all of their games, but their opponents also begin a kind of retribution by refusing to play out the competitions when Miles joins the front line. City patricians also begin to complain, and even the normally kind and bland Superintendent of Schools (the role my father played in my life), who is now dating Pam, becomes forced to question Miles’ role on the team.
      This might have been, in a different kind of movie, a great statement about a young man’s break-through in civil rights. But everybody here seems pallid and almost as unresponsive in their love and values as the father has been. The local theater owner finds a way to fire the young would-be film maven, and even Pam, who discovers his computer conversations, never even confronts him with the truth she now knows—this, after admitting with her husband’s death, that the lies cannot be stopped.
      One might almost say that “things fall apart” without splintering. Although forced off the volleyball court, Miles still gains a scholarship for another Chicago school, Loyola, and is even presented with a gift from his mother (although one hardly imagines where she might have found the money to pay for it) of a film camera, as Miles leaps unto a bus into his possible paradise.

       It’s a touching film, and you can only delight when Miles suddenly finds a way to move off into the proverbial “sunset.” But, I’m sorry to say, it just doesn’t quite make sense. Things don’t quite happen like that. Children who are told they are not allowed to do things, come to resent the world; women who only serve their families, like Pam, grow bitter. The determined Pam and the implacable Miles seems to me to represent myths of an endlessly-loving mother a knowledgeable young gay man totally ready to embrace his new world.
     I used to sneak views in local grocery stores of the males in fan magazines (the Gee-Bees had incredible bulges). On one occasion I bought a book of boy porno (still available in those days) in my senior year in Waukesha, Wisconsin, sneaking it into a public bathroom, where the person in the next stall tried to get my attention, presumably for sex. I was just embarrassed; shocked by own desires.
     Let us hope Miles and his mother, like the entire school community in Love, Simon, simply represent a new world, where there is no pain for having to rediscover one’s entire life. But Adloff turns his central characters simply into enduring ciphers, unable, it appears, to even be scarred by the world in which they exist. I’d like to think that suffering such feelings of being removed from the society is a thing of the past. But I’m afraid it’s simply not. If nothing else, might not Pam realize her son’s desperate attempt to escape has something to do with her own entrapment in that society?
     And I’ve been to Chicago many a time. It’s terribly cold and horribly hot, a city with a very large amalgam of American life. A dangerous city itself. I used to escape there as a young man through bus-trips from Iowa, not for sex (although there was one hotel encounter with a restaurant colleague when I indeed might have realized by sexuality but did not) but for theater and museums.
     In the 1980s my poet friend Charles Bernstein and I were both invited to read at the Chicago Contemporary Museum. While watching this film, I suddenly remembered that our sponsors were students and faculty members from Columbia College Chicago, the institution which Miles so desired to attend. The audience was enthusiastic and appreciative. Outside of Philadelphia, it was one of the best readings of my life.
     Our hosts, after the reading wherein they declared that both Charles’ and my books had been stolen from their library, took us to an excellent Armenian restaurant, Sayat Nova (I was impressed since I’d already seen the Paradjanov film). They then took us to a party in a distant Chicago community, where I realized that several of these beautiful young men were gay.
      Suddenly, in the midst of festivities (drinking and enjoying their young company), I realized that I’d left my carrying bag at the restaurant. A call to the restaurant proved that an employee had indeed found the bag and would gladly meet us at a bar nearby the Loop restaurant at 12:00 A.M. One of the young men drove me there for that late appointment, and she appeared with my bag. I offered her a financial award, but she simply allowed me to give her drink.
      I think the cinematic Miles would have adored Columbia College of Chicago and given the total honesty of the people I encountered there, perhaps he chose the right place to drive wide-eyed into his new reality.

Los Angeles, February 17, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (February 2019).

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