Friday October 15, 1999
John Keitel's aptly titled "Defying Gravity" opens with a young man, Griff, waking up and rushing out of an old private home to a nearby fraternity house in an attempt to get into his bed before anybody realizes he hasn't been sleeping there all night. We quickly learn that this happens fairly frequently with Griff and that the bed in that old house belongs not to a coed but a fraternity brother with whom he has been having the most secret of affairs.
Griff (Daniel Chilson) wants it both ways: to pass as straight but also to enjoy a sexual relationship with Pete (Don Handfield). You can understand why readily enough: Griff fits right in with his fraternity brothers, all of whom are good-looking and athletic. Besides, Griff hasn't really accepted that he is gay and falls back on that oldest of consolations: "Maybe it's just a phase."
Pete, however, has progressed considerably further than Griff although he could also pass as straight. He hasn't come out to their fraternity brothers yet but moving out of the frat house is for him a crucial first step in accepting and exploring his sexual orientation. Pete has started frequenting a local gay hangout whereas Griff is singularly uncomfortable about meeting Pete there for coffee.
Despite their mutual attraction and feelings for each other they become increasingly tense with each other, and just when you're wondering how much tension their relationship can sustain Pete becomes the target of a gay bashing so severe that he's been left in a coma from which he might not emerge.
Griff therefore is hit hard himself--by reality. All at once he's got to deal with whether or not to tell the police what he knows of Pete's whereabouts prior to the attack. He's confronted with having to deal with how he really feels about Pete and their relationship, and he's got to face the fact that if he is to be a responsible citizen, that if he cares at all about Pete as a human being, let alone as a lover, he is almost certain to have to come out of the closet in the process.
"Defying Gravity" is a straightforward drama done with a maturity and conviction impressive for a first film. Keitel, who earned his master's degree in cinema at USC (the locale for his film), is especially adept at the key task of depicting Griff, so selflessly portrayed by Chilson, going through the painful process of growing up fast out of necessity. Keitel is also skilled at suggesting fraternity house homophobia as largely--but by no means entirely--a reflexive, unthinking reaction and not necessarily deriving from deeply held anti-gay beliefs. In short, even a severe gay bashing can be a chillingly casual, even random act, and not a carefully planned attack fueled by conscious hate. You could even imagine Pete's attackers considering gay bashing a kind of sport.
Chilson and Bradley are capable and focused as are their colleagues, which include Niklaus Lange, an actor of strong presence who plays Todd, Griff's best friend, a young man who has no trouble accepting Griff. Linna Carter is also impressive as a young black lesbian with whom Griff forms a bond, reaching across race when they discover that they are exactly in the same place, both in need of self-acceptance and overwhelmed with the prospect of coming out.
As traditional in style as "Defying Gravity" is, it can be subtle, as when Todd tells Griff he is so in love with his girlfriend he now sees her instead of himself when he looks in the mirror. When Griff looks in the mirror and still sees himself rather than Pete he tries to tell himself, in a desperate act of self-deception, that this means he's not truly gay. A touch like this lifts "Defying Gravity" above the conventional.
Defying Gravity, 1999. Unrated. A Jour de Fe^te and Boom Pictures presentation. Writer-director John Keitel. Producers David Clayton Miller and Jack Koll. Cinematographer Thomas M. Harting. Editor Matthew Yagle. Music Tim Westergren. Original songs composed and performed by John T. Howard. Production designer Scott McPhail. Art director Bob Peterson. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. Daniel Chilson as John (Griff) Griffith. Niklaus Lange as Todd Bentley. Don Handfield as Pete Bradley. Linna Carter as Denetra Washington.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times