by Jordan King
If your idea of getting high as a teen was more about singing Sondheim and playing improv theatre games than smashing shots and smoking weed, then HOO BOY do I have a film for you. Writer-director Jonathan Wysocki’s semi-autobiographical Dramarama, set in mid-90s America at a Victorian themed murder mystery party, is a coming-of-age film that acts as an unapologetic love letter to the musical theatre kid crowd whilst also telling a heart-felt and explorative story of sexual repression and the growing pains of falling in love and feeling like you can’t or shouldn’t express it.
Teenage thesp Gene (Nick Pugliesi) is gay and living in the closet. At the start of Wysocki’s film, we see him rehearse coming out in front of his bedroom mirror in his tighty-whiteys as his mum bangs on the door and asks him whether he’s coming to church or not. He’s not going to church, although in the hours that follow fun and games teeter on the brink of out-and-out confessional several times, and God certainly seems to be playing on the minds of Gene and his pals. Gene is in fact going to a Victorian themed murder mystery party hosted by his friend, Rose (Anna Grace Barlow), a Dickens loving aspiring actress who quotes Shakespeare’s ‘All the world’s a stage’ and – for the most part – totally comes across as believing it.
Also in attendance there is UCLA hopeful Oscar (Nico Greetham), whose own sexuality appears to be buried beneath scripture, verbosity, and the existence of his girlfriend Puppet Girl, of whom we learn nothing more than that he describes her boobs as ‘warm sandbags’ and his concerns about long-distance romance are minimal. Then there’s Ally (Danielle Kay), an opera singer who counters a feeling that she’s not treated as equal to her out-and-out thespian peers by wilfully pushing boundaries both in play and conversational probing, and whose name feels like a witty allusion to her vital role in letting Gene know she knows who he is and loves him all the same. And last but not least, there’s Claire (Megan Suri), labelled a prude by the rest of the group for her aversion to talk of sex and profanity, but harbouring within a desire for Gene that manifests in moments of blind rage and sexual provocation.
As the friends come together, initially to solve the murder of Rose’s Miss Havisham in scenes torn straight from the CLUE playbook, it’s not long before the arrival of popular jock-type JD (Zak Henri) bursts the group’s bubble of banter and frivolity, setting in motion an altogether more real investigation of their selves, their relationships with one another, and the secrets they have been keeping held inside for far too long. Through a momentum-keeping oscillation between pop-culture reference filled theatrics among the group as they record dramatised home-video skits, play silly saucy games (Flashlight Homosexual is GENIUS!), and mess around buoyed by years of in-jokes and closeness, and then quieter moments of introspection and soul-bearing that cut away the performative personae of the panoply, Wysocki achieves something that marries sincerity with silliness in a way that adds up to something often profound. The way each character’s drama-armour falls away as the night wears on is paced and performed excellently, with Pugliesi particularly impressing at the heart of it all as his coming-out story mellows into a ‘when I’m ready’ one instead.
Whilst the film clearly takes thematic and formal cues from inspirations as varied as The Breakfast Club, Glee, and the aforementioned CLUE, where it diverges is in Wysocki’s choice of characters and community to tell his story. We so readily associate ‘theatre kids’ as being inextricably tied to a very liberal, inclusive way of thinking, that it almost feels antithetical to the development of a narrative dealing with repression and the concealment of sexual identity. But, thanks to impeccable writing and an ensemble of truly grounded, believable performances, what we bear witness to is the naivety of young people who exist in an echo chamber where flamboyance and extravagance is the norm but sex and desire are off-topic taboos. Self-censorship is a real issue, and unintended ignorance too, and Wysocki’s screenplay deftly manoeuvres both the more overt repression his characters experience through religious doctrine, with the deeper level of repression arising from sheer lack of exposure to sexuality.
An emotionally charged car scene between Gene and Oscar exemplifies this tension in Dramarama brilliantly – both characters believe they are discussing confusion and anger at God’s fluxing between love and vengeance and the way that makes homosexuality’s status as a sin so hard to define, but the loving way they see and experience one another as young men grappling with homoerotic desires at differingly extreme levels goes almost entirely unnoticed by the pair.
Capable of leaving you genuinely laughing out loud to yourself in one moment, and quietly shedding a tear in the next, Dramarama is a worthy, truly enjoyable addition to the storied coming-of-age canon. In a friendship group – in a world – where we support one another, being gay should be as hard and as easy as being anyone discovering love and figuring themselves out properly for the first time, and this film shows us that in a refreshing way. With nuanced character development and an improvisational tone carried off by a set of young actors and actresses who call to mind the great, deeply missed musical theatre friends of my own youth (and surely will do the same for many others), this film that starts as a murder mystery party ends up being a total killer.
Dramarama is playing in US cinemas now.
It’s on VOD o