There are two ways you have to look at G.B.F., which as you might guess is an acronym for “gay best friend.” On the surface, this is just another movie about high school cliques and the popular kids versus the nerds. And really, most of the movie doesn’t escape this admittedly dismissible logline. But couched in this premise, if only for a small part of the movie, is some truly cutting social commentary. It doesn’t quite redeem the movie as a movie, but it does make for a film worthy of some discussion where otherwise there would just be emptiness.
So what’s worthy of discussion? The premise of the film is that the latest “it” trend for the most popular celebrity women is to have a gay best friend. Therefore, the three most popular girls at the high school where the movie is set all set their sites on finding one in their latest attempts to one-up one another. The problem? Their school is devoid of openly gay men. These girls, thankfully, are not the central characters of the movie (although they do fill key supporting roles).
The lead is rather your prototypical high school boy: not too popular, likes comic books, not too smart or too stupid, has a small but tight knit group of friends. The one diversion from this well worn character is that he’s gay, as is his more flamboyant – but still officially closeted – best friend (though not boyfriend. This ends up being one of the movie’s best and bravest choices. More on it in a bit.) All of the above about what’s trending in pop culture we actually learn through this friend, Brent (played by Paul Iacono). The movie opens with Brent talking to Tanner (the main character, played by Michael J. Willett) about coming out, Brent hoping this will catapult him up the social ladder where he can be the center of attention that befits his personality. This plan is ruined when Tanner is accidentally outed instead, meaning he becomes simultaneously the most ostracized person and most coveted object in school.
And as the film points out in due time, Tanner is never much more than an object of social advancement to his new “friends” (aka the descending vultures of the social elite) It’s not that the movie is communicating much that’s truly groundbreaking in cinema. This isn’t Brokeback Mountain, for instance; the focus isn’t on any romance. But due perhaps in part that this is such a by the book high school movie, roughly a third of the movie does a really great job of hammering home the point that neither Tanner nor any gay person is defined by his gayness. Tanner is a boy who likes comic books, dresses in jeans and t-shirts, and doesn’t quite know what he’s doing with his life. The girls who take over his life desperately want him to fit into their stereotypically limited notion of what a gay person should be, but to the film’s credit Tanner’s personality doesn’t swing wildly from one extreme to another as he tests out his new social standing. Again, it’s not the most nuanced look at how homosexuality is treated in our society, but the film does a good job of using the genre in which it’s cast to be effective.
Before I go off into what didn’t work so well, I do want to finish the thought I brought up before regarding Tanner’s relationship to Brent. This is going to veer into some very minor spoiler-y territory, so skip down past the next paragraph if you don’t want to know anything more about what goes on in the movie than the premise. Ok? Ok.
The movie makes two things clear in setting up the characters of Tanner and Brent: 1) they are very close, and 2) they are not romantically involved. These are friends we’re dealing with, friends who just happen to be gay. We’ve seen their heterosexual equivalent a million times. A lot of what works in this movie is rooted in the fact that it’s somewhat familiar, because that’s the point it’s trying to make. All people are people, regardless of their sexuality, and they’re dealing with very similar problems. Tanner and Brent don’t get together just because it’d be convenient. That’s something they have to deal with at some point, just like any guy/girl pairs of friends, but despite the fact that the movie doesn’t nail paying that conflict off, the idea is exactly in the right place. For a movie that does so much else too by-the-book, I was pleasantly shocked that it bucked convention in this particular detail.
Which brings us back to the fact that despite the good intentions mentioned above, this is a deeply flawed movie that sticks way too close to the sort of high school tropes that litter mediocre-to-bad cable TV shows. I mentioned earlier that for about a third of the movie the social commentary is pretty compelling, but that leaves two thirds that, simply put, are boring. I’m not arguing for a different setting. As I’ve already mentioned, I think the movie needs some of the genre trappings to work against. The problem is it doesn’t sufficiently tweak enough of them to feel fully fleshed out.
The popular girls are probably the worst example of this. One’s a sexually repressed, highly religious (at least superficially) naive Mormon, one’s the pretty airhead cheerleader type that’s actually kind of smart, and the other is the token black girl who challenges racial boundaries. The problem with all of them is that, just as the religious one, ‘Shley (short for Ashley), is only superficially devout, all three only have the appearance of depth. The cheerleader/closet nerd, Fawcett (Sasha Pieterse) is the most developed of the bunch, but even there, her smarts don’t develop into anything. She exists as a type, rather than being a person who happens to exemplify a type.
And this is how it goes with the vast majority of the film, plot and characters both included. It’s caught between a little bit of a rock and a hard place, needing the appearance of some tropes in order to set off the experience of its main character, but I could never shake a feeling of emptiness. The understanding of exactly what kind of movie this is becomes well established within the first ten minutes, meaning the film should have had full license to spend the rest of the movie subverting every expectation it wanted to. Instead, it only diverts where it’s main premise forces it to. I was actually reminded most of Easy A while watching this movie, and while I don’t think that’s necessarily a shining example of the heights cinema can reach, I do believe it was far more successful in playing with the hallmarks of a teen high school comedy/drama. G.B.F. suffers from being too cartoonish; its characters are stick figures more often than they are real flesh and blood human beings, and the movie lacks emotional punch as a result despite some cleverness.
The Verdict: 1 out of 5
I struggled for a while deciding what score to award this movie because I do think that there’s a kernel of something that’s quite biting (in a good way) buried in here. But what it’s buried in ends up being too much. I felt that the movie had concluded everything it wanted to say by the halfway point, and hadn’t said it especially well to boot. There are some clever plays off the genre here and there, and the point the movie is trying to make is certainly worthwhile, but in the end this is a by-the-book high school dramedy that feels ripped from a lesser TV show aimed at middle schoolers and no one else.