Defying Gravity: John Keitel’s Directing Debut

The only thematic novelty in Defying Gravity, John Keitel’s modest feature directorial debut, is that its coming-out story takes place at a university frat house. Nonetheless, made with a good deal of charm, this aptly titled drama is a likely bet for theatrical release for it’s bound to please gay men, particularly young ones. Pic should easily travel the global gay festival circuit.

Watching the endearingly naive Defying Gravity leaves no doubt that it’s a personal film, written by an insider who’s still close in age to his main characters, half a dozen white students sharing a frat house in an unnamed campus (pic was actually shot at USC, where Keitel was a graduate film student).

Affable and cute, Griff (Daniel Chilson), the ultimate frat boy, spends a hot night with his frat fellow Pete (Don Handfield), who lives off-campus. But he can’t face the notion–and the responsibility–that he’s gay, still continuing a flirtatious affair with Gretchen (Nicki Lynn), a fetching sorority girl who doesn’t excite him much. Griff’s best friend, the very straight Todd (Niklaus Lange) is also unaware of his buddy’s emerging sexual orientation, though he senses that their relationship is changing and not what it used to be.

An argument one night between Pete and Griff in a West Hollywood coffee shop ends badly. Unbeknownst to Griff, later that night, Pete becomes a victim of gay bashing that sends him severely bruised to the hospital. Griff finds out about the incident from a TV news report and all he can remember from that fateful night is seeing a suspicious-looking truck following Pete into a dark alley.

Rest of the overly familiar drama is devoted to Griff’s dual dilemma of whether to report the case to the police (a theme used in numerous youth movies, most recently in All Over Me) and put himself on the line, and when to tell Todd about his “secret.” The melodramatic plot gets some necessary tension, when it becomes clear that members of Griff’s own frat house were involved in the bashing, which results in a moralistic confrontation, eventually forcing him to begin a new, more mature life on his own.

What helps this meller overcome the trepidations of its well-traveled road is a gallery of credible and positive characters. Prominent among them is Denetra (Linna Carter), Griff’s African-American classmate, who’s confused about her own sexuality and becomes a trusted confidante during his moral crisis. Reflecting the zeitgeist of a new generation, Pete’s parents are not portrayed as the conservative unfeeling monsters, and Todd is a more sensitive and understanding straight buddy than was the norm in most gay movies until the 1990s.

Considering its low budget and reportedly only 13-day shoot, the movie is directed by Keitel with a good measure of honesty and taste. There are no great performances here (the three lead thesps are no more than OK), but overall the cast is handsome and appealing. Young gay men will relate to the heartfelt and earnest tale in a more direct and personal manner, whereas older ones will have a deja vu grin on their face, particularly when Griff tries to convince himself that his sexual attraction to men “is only a phase.”