First, I’d like to acknowledge that the mere existence of a movie like G.B.F. is a good thing. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t looking hard enough (or at all) as a teenager, but there haven’t been many gay high school romantic comedies created for a mainstream audience. They existed at the fringes of culture, no doubt, but not to someone whose key to the world of cinema was a Blockbuster Video membership card. Even as the genre has progressed and films are more accessible due to the rise of Netflix and VOD, the LGBT community has mostly sat this one out: for various reasons, lesbians, bisexual men and women, and trans men and women (not to mention folks all across the spectrum) have largely been erased from popular culture (when a show like Orange Is the New Black is a success, this is the exception), and gay men are mostly there as sidekicks, ready to roll their eyes at a moment’s notice. We live in a supposedly post-everything society, and this is still how culture presents people outside the margins.
So it’s good, then, that G.B.F. exists, and that it opens on a group of friends comprised thusly: two gay men, one queer woman, one straight man of color. This is not the way characters in this genre are grouped. This may be the first group in so heavily and innocuously queered. This is vital because representation is vital, and because, too often, marginalized groups aren’t represented at all. And this is cinema we’re talking about. Gay, liberal cinema. It’s important to have a gay romantic comedy because But I’m A Cheerleader came out in 1999. Because Glee is one television show, and one is nothing. Because it’s nice to have a film that doesn’t begin, climax, or end in tragedy. G.B.F. wastes no time at all in letting you know that things are different. The opening credits feature a panda vomiting rainbows. This, the panda roars, spewing hues of pride across page after page of a high school yearbook, is gonna be gay. Only instead, this is just another bad high school comedy. This one just happens to sting a bit more.
It’s not enough, I think, for a movie to have good intentions. When I first heard about G.B.F., it was in the context of its MPAA rating, which is R, and how that rating might prevent some kid who needs a movie like this in their life from seeing it. This isn’t far outside the realm of possibility—the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated makes abundantly clear the kind of hell liberal censors put artists through; poor John Waters, after screening A Dirty Shame for the board, was told that, after awhile, they simply stopped counting the film’s infractions. While an R rating is hardly as damming now as it was before the internet made it possible to acquire everything regardless of entities like the MPAA, the R rating is the province of teen sex movies where sluggish miscreants get hammered with their mutant pals while trying to have sex with some object the dictionary calls “woman,” not that of the sweet-natured romance G.B.F. is marketed as. There’s a point to that, of course, but presuming G.B.F. was released with a PG-13 rating, it’d likely be the only one that drops a word like “jizzbin” as a casual means of describing one of its characters.
Not to act as the tone police or anything, but G.B.F. is surprisingly mean-spirited for what it’s meant to be, or, I suppose, what it could have been. In the history of North Gateway High School, there’s never been a publicly gay student. There’s a smattering of them, sure, all obviously gay (though nobody in the film can parse this, short of the parents back home) but none of them are out. When a teen rag reports that gay best friends are on trend, one of those students in the closet plans to come out, hoping to leverage that article into a role as sidekick to one of the three most popular girls in school. Tanner Daniels (Michael J. Willett) is this closet queen’s accomplice, an also-in-the-closet kid who’d rather read comic books and not get beaten up than climb to social ladder. But when a series of contrivances leads to the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance outing him (they need an actual, living gay person in the group for it to exist, or something), he becomes the first and gains all of the privilege and esteem and makeover montages that come with that designation.
There are a number of topics here that are worth talking about, all of which are frequently glossed over in many discussions about gay rights. The pressure placed on an individual to come out, the sometimes detrimental actions of allies—heck, just growing up gay in a society that now “accepts” that—but G.B.F. has 90-minutes to play with and no interest in the details it uses to race to the finish of its cut-and-paste plot. Prom is coming up, after all, and to be its Queen, one of those three popular girls will have to play hag to the school’s lone fag. In a movie replete with stereotypes, these three can be labeled thusly: The “White” One, The “Mormon” One, and The “Black” One. You can assign these labels to all of the primary characters—The “Gay” One, The “GAY” One, The “Lesbian” One, The “Mormon” One Who Is in the Closet—without exaggerating how poorly the screenplay understands teenage culture; everybody is as fake as the Bucci sweaters they wear.
There is some sweetness here—Megan Mullalley shows up as a mother who has been waiting for some time for her son to tell her that he’s gay—but it is largely wasted; everyone in G.B.F. is beautiful and the biggest consequence anybody has to face for racism, sexism, or homophobia is that they’re not invited to the cool kid prom…but then everybody is anyway, and the world keeps on spinning. A better script wouldn’t necessarily have made G.B.F. a good teen movie—the direction is much too flat, and none of the adult roles register much higher than celebrity cameo—but that’s the major sticking point here, that the “teenage voice” adopted here is curdled to the point of bitterness. The result is an awkward, gawky prom date who means well, but keeps saying the wrong thing. Loudly. If this is what a gay teen comedy looks, sounds, and acts, maybe the genre isn’t ready to come out of the closet.
G.B.F. With Michael J. Willett (Tanner Daniels), Paul Iacono (Brent Van Camp), Sasha Pieterse (Fawcett Brooks), Xosha Roquemore (Caprice Winters), Andrea Bowen (‘Shley Osgoode), Evanna Lynch (McKenzie Pryce), Natasha Lyonne (Ms. Hogel), and Megan Mullally (Mrs. Van Camp). Directed by Darren Stein, from a screenplay by George Northy.