THE LATEST MISSTEP IN THE REALM of the American gay film, Defying Gravity, comes to us complete with a publicity quote from Darryl Macdonald, Director of the Seattle International Film Festival, who calls this former entry, "The best gay film I've seen in 10 years." I'm not sure why Macdonald would say such an outrageous thing, because Defying Gravity, while every bit as heartfelt as a debut feature should be, is by no stretch of anyone's imagination even a halfway decent film.

With sluggish predictability, two fraternity brothers experience something warm and tingly until one panics, betrays the other, and Learns a Lesson. The film pads itself out with an extended gay-bashing "mystery" and a clumsy, incomplete attempt to deal with racial and gender issues. Of course, this story probably felt creaky the first time it was told, as the situation is so achingly familiar to most gay men that it begs for a fresh perspective not provided here. Everybody talks in the tone of a Public Service Announcement, so the whole thing comes off as an awkward, heavy-handed pose, right down to the frequent use of "dude" and "bro" to remind us that we're dealing with frat guys. This college Greek system milieu is more masturbatory than revelatory: The film enjoys its good-looking young men, but gives them nothing remotely interesting to say or--dammit!--to do.

By the end, everything wraps up so tidily it's hard to tell whether writer/director John Keitel has rose-colored memories or the unfortunate aesthetics of a starry-eyed romantic. Optimism is certainly welcome and possible in the usually doomed world of cinematic gay love (the British Beautiful Thing lived up to its title with gentle good cheer), but Keitel has framed his film with an antiseptic pretense of reality that makes the happy ending that much more false. The line between hope and naiveté is a fine one, a tightrope too thin to navigate with the sledgehammer Defying Gravity is very earnestly wielding.

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