James Sweeney’s “Straight Up” is like a Shakespearean romantic comedy where the players are in all the wrong bodies, in all the wrong drag. Todd (played by Sweeney, who also wrote the film) suffers from OCD and a crisis of self. He might be gay, but he’s so terrified it’s rendered him deeply clueless about himself.
Rory (Katie Findlay) is a young actor in L.A., a rising star in her own mind but struggling hard—too smart for the life she’s living. They meet cute in the self-help section of the library and quickly begin to lean into each other. Their romance is charmed and there’s chemistry, but not the right kind … or is it? What is happening between them? Can we touch this, turn it over in our hands?
“Straight Up” is about intellectual soulmates and whether that connection can ever translate into lust or love. Aren’t all stories about two people ultimately always about love? Love gone good, or bad, or lost, or found?
It’s brightly lit, preciously designed: reminiscent of “Jeunet,” or Bryan Fuller’s “Pushing Daisies.” The poppy, vintage-influenced set has some of the most fabulously splashy backdrops I’ve seen in a while. From a bold, citrusy chevron rug to a huge, darkly floral mural, to a wall papered with cocktail umbrellas, “Straight Up” pays fastidious attention to detail and art-forward taste, combined with beautiful camera work and a real moody, modern pop and synth soundtrack. It consistently delivers a stunning setting for two young lost souls, reaching for each other under the Los Angeles lights.
It’s a charming, cerebral film, and everyone is so up in their own heads, they’re missing what’s in front of their own faces. Both souls are hurting, trying to heal, and they talk about it a lot. Think vintage, talkie-inspired, with nods to the rapid-fire dialogue of “Gilmore Girls,” with dogeared Victorian novels under its bed. What I mean to say is, this is a talking film, charmed as much by the sound of its own voice as with what it’s saying—and with good reason. It’s wry, observant, raw and open; this script is as clever as it is heartfelt. It feels like a letter to the filmmaker’s younger self: “Hey there, bud, you were so sweet and so clueless once upon a time, full of fear, but I promise it does get better once you learn to love yourself.”
But Todd and Rory have to go through it. Rory seems lonely, tortured by her own demons, parallel and tangential to Todd’s questioning his sexuality. His reticence to do it works for her, as she’s privately dealing with some sort of past trauma. They need each other, but none of their friends really get it. Everyone else can see that he’s gay and she’s his beard, hiding for a whole other set of reasons. But the two people at the center of this film are utterly blind, working through each of their issues in the dark, solely by feel (and talk).
When their relationship hits a bump in the road, they just put on helmets and buckle down harder. Despite, or maybe because of, their cluelessness about themselves, we just root for them harder to figure it out. Their journey is punctuated by Todd’s bold friends’ memorable performances. Model Meg (Dana Drori) and the avant garde-y Ryder (James Scully) steal the show in their few short scenes. Their flamboyant, over-the-top flair provides a great foil for Todd and Rory’s retro values and delicate constitutions.
“Straight Up” is a tender, coming-of-age story, a really pretty, flower-filled, LA romp about sex, the need for it, the desire to forget it, the freakin’ PTSD of it all. The injured explorers must first find a partner for their expedition, a hand to hold, a mirror that reflects all the best parts about them, before they can open up their eyes and see it all for themselves. But screw a Hollywood formula because that person doesn’t always need to be a lover or a spouse‚ especially if you don’t know yet which way you swing.