“Ukeire”: gay melodrama set in Appalachia takes religious homophobia to a precipice

Ukeire” (2015), is a disturbing small “real indie” film about religiously driven homophobia by J. J. O’Hearn based on his own short story, which might seem set up and contrived.  But the message of this film, which is somewhat stilted in acting and excruciating at times to watch, does indeed unfold in some light sheets or layers.  The title means “acceptance” in Japanese.  I would wonder if Reid Ewing, with his interest in Japan and Danganronpa and Japanese culture, has watched this.

A teenager, Brennan Akitsuki O’Dorcay (Pate Faulkner) has taken the bus from California back to his old hometown of Corbin, Kentucky, in the mountains near Cumberland Gap (which I visited in 2016, my photo above). We’re he lost family members to a house fire and then a murder in San Francisco and later Fresno.  Child Protective Services escorts him to his single dad’s (Brady, played by David Bingham) home, which seems rather nicely furnished physically. Brady somewhat reluctantly takes him in.   Brennan apparently has partly Japanese ancestry, although that’s not really obvious from his looks.

Then Brennan is enrolled in the local high school.  It seems sparsely staffed (is this really how it is, or a matter of the film’s budget) – teachers double up as assistant principals.   He quickly meets a best friend  Aidan (Austin Call) who seems like an intellectually and socially secure person in a poor environment – maybe even gifted. But the other kids seem tribal and lethargic, and homophobic, as we find out.  Two girls beat up Brennan for dressing and looking like a “fag” (or maybe a “gook” even).

The young male English teacher Mr. James Wilson (James Lanham) assigns the small class an assignment of rewriting a scene from either “Romeo and Juliet” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in modern context (with FinalDraft?) and acting it in class.  (Why not try, “The Tempest“?  Saw it on an arena stage in Dallas in the 80s and the young male sirens were appropriately polished.)  Brennan gets paired with Aidan, who is trying to help him adjust. Lanham’s voice and delivery reminds me of math teacher and whiz Deven Ware from AOPS at UCLA (on YouTube). I wondered if Deven could have been cast for this role!

After the beating, Brennan tells both Wilson and Aidan that he is gay.  The staff seems mildly supportive but not willing to do much to stop other students from bullying. Aidan is more supportive, and seems genuinely, maybe profoundly gifted and ready to go onto great things himself. Brennan decides to tell dad that he is gay, and slips it in to a dinner conversation. The father explodes, beats up Brennan, who runs out into the woods. Later Aiden finds him having slashed his wrists. It’s too late to save his life at the hospital.

Maybe the film means a parallel to a Shakespeare as a tragedy, although it’s not really a fit.  Brennan appears as a ghost from heaven a few times, as if it were a real place for the next life. Personally, I think the afterlife is a lot more fragmentary than that, but I won’t get into the Monroe Institute theories here. The dad explodes at the funeral again with rhetoric that sounds like the Westboro Baptist Church (“GHF”), complete with burning in hell.  But when he meets his son’s ghost near the coffin, he realizes how wrong he is and become profusely apologetic, as his whole concept of what is in the Bible must turn on its head.

There are other ways to interpret the suicide issue.  It could be seen as the person’s desire to punish those who taunted him, to say that the world is unworthy of being lived in.  So it might be seen as arrogant or even cowardly. Indeed many Christians believe that suicide means forfeiture of heaven and damnation instead. But what if gross harm is inflicted by a criminal or a foreign enemy.  What if someone is exposed to radiation by a terrorist or nuclear blast and decides to jump off a building to avoid dying of radiation sickness?  Or to avoid survival in a world, however changed by force by an enemy, in which he no longer fits in?

We could imagine a film whether the father commits suicide instead.  The father may be in the position of Job, so to speak. Much of his family has been taken away from him by disaster or violence perpetrated by others. Now his only son informs him, effectively, that he will never have any more lineage.

One, for comparison, could read the New Yorker article by Ian Parker, “The Story of a Suicide”, about 18 year old violinist and Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi, in September 2010, three months before my own mother’s natural passing.

The film stays within PG-13 territory and has no explicit scenes.

The photography and lighting look sharp.  The music score seems trite and repetitious, however.

This might be a good film for Reel Affirmations (DC) to look at for an HRC showing. It would be nice if an innovative distributor like A24 took an interest in this film.

Corbin, KY photo (wiki).

Name:  “Ukeire
Director, writer:  J. J. O’Hearne
Released:  2015
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  YouTube free, 2018/1/6
Length:  82
Rating:  NA (seems PG-13)
Companies:  self-distributed as far as I know, Emerald Shamrock Studios
Link:  imdb

(Posted: Monday, January 8, 2018 at 1:30 PM EST)

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