(2023, 90 min)
Director: Rightor Doyle
Studio: FilmNation Ent./ Sony Pictures
A deeply repressed man, the uninhibited young man that gives him a happy ending, and all the lives they ruin along the way.
In a stately Long Island home, flanked by a coniferous forest and the sun-glinted ocean, a man prepares for a massage. He fastidiously removes his Oxfords and tucks them into a cubby. Next comes his watch, which he unfastens. It’s a marked difference from how he handles his wedding ring, a gold band he fingers before tossing in a box. As the man — his name is Gary and he’s played by Zachary Quinto — lowers himself onto the massage table, a heavy and dramatic orchestral score plays in the background. His masseur, a spirited, blue-eyed, blonde-haired man, begins rubbing oil on his back. The tone of the scene shifts as Gary moans and groans.
So begins Down Low, a zany, frenetic and horny comedy that in trying to go there doesn’t end up anywhere. Penned by costar Lukas Gage (The White Lotus) with Phoebe Fisher, the film chronicles a feverish 24 hours for Gary, a diffident man whose wife and sons shunned him after he came out. Ready to live life to the fullest, Gary hires a masseur/sex worker to give him a hand job and maybe something more. When the hired Cameron (Gage) learns that Gary has only recently come out and has never had sex with a man, he nixes the hand job for a game of 20 questions. The younger, more confident and liberated queer man makes it his mission to loosen up the stiff divorcé.
Their adventure begins with red wine, confessions and a lesson in online dating. Cameron introduces Gary to the world of Plungr, a Grindr-esque app, and encourages him to make a profile. It’s a surefire way to get laid, Cameron insists. But Gary, with his natural reservations and insecurities, can’t work up the courage. Not willing to take no for an answer, Cameron creates a profile on their behalf, assigning them the roles of “lad” and “dad.” The quest to find a third man for a threesome begins.
Down Low, directed by Rightor Doyle (Bonding), is an ambitious coming-of-age story wrapped in a pseudo morality play wrapped in a screwball comedy. There are reluctant ventures into the dark web, tense encounters with a neighbor, necrophilia and a drug-inspired musical interlude. Doyle confidently directs these escalating and stressful set pieces, demonstrating competence in maneuvering and balancing the tonal demands — from comedy to horror — of the jagged script. In one moment, Gary and Cameron are bonding over a shared sense of abandonment; in the next, they’re committing murder.
That last bit was an accident. An invitation for sex with a local closeted man, Sammy (Sebastian Arroyo), turns sour when he realizes that Cameron and Gary are a 2-for-1 deal. Racy and aggressive roleplaying morphs into actual fury as the trio start to bicker. Sammy tries to punch Cameron but ends up flying out the window and hitting the concrete instead. The death is shocking. This is only the beginning for Down Low, a film that gets off on how unpredictable it can be.
But rowdy hijinks can only take you so far before you need an anchor. At its core, Down Low is ostensibly about generational differences that inform the coming-out process, repression as a means of achieving an elusive idea of “goodness,” and what fully embracing yourself looks like. Actually tackling these topics — via light touches rather than the ham-fisted lessons this film offers — could have been the saving grace of Down Low, but the screenplay repeatedly undercuts that possibility, and what’s left feels hollow.
Although Quinto softens Gary’s rigidity, using physical comedy to gesture at his deeper internal conflict and complexity, the character feels haphazardly drawn; the script struggles to balance the bombshell revelations of his life with the trauma of his childhood and the passivity of his present. Gary, as written, has at once too much and not enough going on.
Cameron inspires similar frustrations. At first, he seems a clever parody of an archetypical cis white queer 20something whose entire personality boils down to quippy bits and asides, including a predilection for Gen Z catchphrases (“That’s hot,” “We stan”) and an affect borrowed from Black queer influences. But bitter, wry humor and pop culture anecdotes are ultimately the only thing Cameron has to offer, and as the film plods along, his character reads less as shrewd caricature and more like disheartening reality. That cheapens his later actions, which include a confrontation with Gary’s ex-wife (Audra McDonald).
Bonded by disaster, Cameron and Gary try to figure out what to do with the dead body. Forces — mostly in the form of Gary’s Ambien-addicted neighbor, Sandy (Judith Light) — threaten to unravel their half-baked plans. Seeking solutions, they decide to hire Buck (Simon Rex) to help discard Sammy’s body. (Cameron and Gary don’t expect their sketchy forensic cleaner to smoke crack or be a necrophiliac.)
The wild ride continues, and it becomes clear — if it wasn’t already — that in Down Low, antics are the priority. Similarly to Bottoms, another SXSW entrant, the film pushes against the expectation of queer narratives to follow the same dolorous beats by prioritizing fun and crass humor. But there’s just not enough substance to get us to care about reaching the finish line.
-- Reviewed by Lovia Gyarkye, The Hollywood Reporter (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com)