Today’s cinema adventure: BearCity, a 2010 romantic comedy about a young man whose secret attraction for big, hairy, masculine men leads him into the insular gay subculture of “bears.” Directed by Douglas Langway, and co-written by Langway and Lawrence Ferber, it attempts to graft the familiar Hollywood-style romance formula onto an exploration of the tight-knit bear community, exposing and poking fun at stereotypes along the way, in order to both appeal to a largely underrepresented sector of the population and to present a sort of primer for those unfamiliar with this rarified scene. Though it has met with a somewhat mixed response from critics and some members of the gay community, it has been sufficiently popular and successful to warrant a sequel, BearCity 2: The Proposal, which is currently being screened at GLBT film festivals across the U.S. and Canada.
Taking its inspiration from the popular TV and movie series, Sex and the City, Langway’s fluffy tale of love and lust in New York centers on Tyler, a 21-year-old “twink” (for those unfamiliar with the term, look it up on Urban Dictionary or ask a gay friend) and aspiring actor who is open and comfortable about his sexuality- but less so about his preferred taste in men. Drawn to older, bigger, hairier guys who don’t fit the “typical” gay mold of attractiveness, he keeps his proclivities a secret from his roommate and his friends; when a potential online hookup lures him to a nightclub for bears, he falls in with a group of hirsute friends who welcome him with open arms, and he begins the process of “coming out of the second closet.” He finds new roommates, gets a job at a bear-friendly coffee bar, and develops a new crush- on Roger, a handsome older “daddy” type who is one of the best-known and popular members of the bear community. The attraction seems to be mutual, but Roger’s sensitivity to the customs and expectations of the micro-culture that surrounds the pair repeatedly thwarts Tyler’s attempts to make a connection. Meanwhile, Tyler’s other new comrades face a variety of issues in their own love lives: his new roommates, Fred and Brent, struggle with the question of remaining monogamous or opening up their relationship to add some spice; and another couple, Michael and Carlos, are pushed apart by Michael’s decision to have weight-reduction surgery. In the midst of all the complications, romantic and otherwise, the whole gang gears up for “BearCity,” a big weekend party which brings the whole community together to celebrate in their own bearish way.
Like most ensemble “rom-coms,” BearCity has a plot tailor-made for the inclusion of one episodic misadventure after another, with which to gently spoof- and reinforce- the familiar foibles and pitfalls inherent in the quest for love. Normally, such a film’s agenda is limited to pleasing its audience with a lot of laughter, a few tears, and, usually, a couple of big “awww” moments leading up to a satisfying conclusion in which love conquers all; this would also be true of BearCity, except clearly, given the community on which it focuses, there is an additional goal. By setting the action amidst gay culture- and a subdivision of gay culture, at that- the film hopes to bridge social gaps and reveal the basic truth that the affairs of the heart, though they may take different forms on the outside, are the same for everyone, regardless of race, creed, culture, or sexuality. It’s not the first film to carry this message, not even the first to deal with that curious subspecies known as “bears;” but what is refreshing about it is that it eschews pretensions of a political or moral agenda and simply concentrates on telling its characters’ stories, devoid of higher messages. Equality is assumed, not defended, and sexual tastes- while they may be subject to lampooning- are accepted without moral judgment. As a result, the movie gets to turn its full attention to the universal concerns which its characters, like everyone else, must address in their various attempts to find- and keep- love.
Even so, BearCity also seems to be very aware that it serves as a sort of travelogue to the uninitiated viewer for whom the world of gay bears is completely unfamiliar; as a result, it takes pains to include a broad view of the community’s peculiarities- including its sexual adventurousness and promiscuity, heavy focus on alcohol and drugs, and a pervading shallowness that seems, more and more, to characterize the popular image of gay life in general. This tapestry of cultural detail provides more than just a backdrop for the proceedings, as the guys’ stories hinge on some of these issues- particularly the ones surrounding sexual mores- and their outcomes are dependent on a coming-to-terms with the particular obstacles they present. In addition, the behavioral observations to be found here have the unfortunate potential for perpetuating stereotypes- though not necessarily the old-fashioned, limp-wristed kind- which continue to create social prejudice against the gay community; despite the fact that the characters, for the most part, are explored to a much deeper level, the surface characteristics they display- however honestly- could be seen as clichéd variations on the familiar theme of “wacky gay neighbor” mannerism. Once again, however, the film is ultimately unconcerned with such factors- the opinions of outsiders are of little consequence to these bears, and in fact one of the film’s most significant themes- one which could even be called an underlying tenet of “bear philosophy,” perhaps- is the importance of being comfortable in who and what you are, without regard to the expectations and standards of others. In BearCity, the only way to find happiness is to be yourself, not who you think you are supposed to be; if that’s not a universal message, I don’t know what is.
Unfortunately, though BearCity succeeds in presenting an authentic portrait of the social atmosphere and lifestyle that characterizes its subjects, it is somewhat less successful in its attempt to craft a smart and compelling romantic comedy. The central love story between Tyler and Roger is sweet enough, if that’s the right word, on the surface; but the pair seem mismatched in a way that goes beyond the obvious differences in age, bearing, and outlook. We want to see them united by the end, but that has more to do with the conditioned response of wishing for a happy ending than it does with any sense that these two are made for each other; their attraction seems little more than just that, an impulse based on surface qualities rather than an instinctive bond between kindred spirits. As for the comedy element, much of the overt humor comes in the form of dialogue which seems far too calculated, as if Langway and Ferber were determined to insert all the standard jokes related to each subject matter they touch upon; the “clever” banter is laced with variations on standard one-liners known universally throughout the gay community, and even if they are less familiar to a straight audience, they still feel forced and deliberate, and as a result, much of the comedy falls flat. Perhaps the intention was to cultivate a further sense of universality, by showing a group of gay guys making the same jokes every other group of gay guys makes, but it has the effect of undermining the freshness which otherwise permeates the film.
BearCity works far better when it leaves behind the larger social scene and brings us into the intimate reality of its characters. In the one-on-one scenes we are given a much more honest and engaging look at the real lives of gay men, and this is where the movie’s more substantial charm becomes apparent. In the subplots surrounding Tyler and Roger’s tentative courtship, we find people who are actively dealing with the real, down-to-earth complications of building a lasting relationship, not the airy fantasy of a first crush. Fred and Brent’s grappling over the question of staying monogamous rings much truer than the moon-eyed wooing of the central couple in an empty bowling alley, and the emotional rift that threatens to rip apart the tender love between Michael and Carlos seems far more important than concerns over what Tyler should wear to BearCity in order to get Roger’s attention. Furthermore, because it grows honestly from the characters and their situations, the comedy that comes in these scenes is much more believable- and therefore funnier- than the predictable humor in the rest of the film. In particular, the comedy of errors that arises when Fred and Brent attempt a three-way play session in the shower is a comic highlight, underscoring the fact that BearCity is at its best when it embraces the opportunity to be different than the mainstream formula comedies it tries to emulate.
The actors, for the most part, are likable and believable enough, although at times the stilted quality of some of their dialogue trips up each and every one of them. Joe Conti is sincere and competent as Tyler, making him a suitable protagonist, albeit less interesting than some of his co-stars. Likewise Gerald McCullouch, as Roger, manages to convey an underlying integrity that keeps him sympathetic and allows us to see his appeal, despite the less savory aspects of his character. Both players are attractive, particularly McCullouch- who, it should be said possesses only marginal qualities that could be described as “bearish,” prompting suspicions that the film’s creators were hedging their bets in trying to appeal to a broader audience. In keeping with the fact that the supporting roles are by far more interesting than the star-crossed lovers in the spotlight, Brian Keane and Stephen Guarino (Fred and Brent) and Gregory Gunter and James Martino (Michael and Carlos) provide much more solid performances, investing their characters with a wider range and deeper authenticity, and generally making us wish they all had more screen time. Alex Di Dio is infectiously charming as Simon, Tyler’s spritely former roommate who later becomes involved as a confidante and advisor in the efforts to win Roger’s affections, and Sebastian LaCause has a nice turn as a Spanish party-bear who threatens to come between the film’s would-be lovers.
As for Langway’s efforts as a director, his work can be described as serviceable, at best. For the most part, he adheres to the familiar conventions of lightweight formula comedy, with little in the way of showy camerawork or flashy editing and not much stylization beyond the occasional obligatory montage. Not that anything more is required here, and truthfully a more self-consciously arty approach would most likely make BearCity insufferably pretentious. Nevertheless, at times the movie has a vaguely amateurish feel, as if Langway (both as director and screenwriter) were trying too hard to fit every ingredient into the soup pot. In addition, the elements which border on stereotypical would perhaps have seemed less so with a more delicate, thoughtful approach behind the camera, though it’s hard to level a criticism over something that might have been. In the same vein, it’s difficult to criticize his soundtrack choices, although one might have wished for a bit more imagination and variety in the selection than what we are given- a bland collection of disco-lite club music which may capture the feel of the community but seems disconnected from the action on the screen. Nevertheless, insofar as he gives us a genuine and clearly affectionate depiction of the world he showcases in his film, Langway’s work is, more-or-less, successful.
BearCity is a movie that carries a social importance heavier than its actual content; by showcasing the life of a culture rarely represented on screen (unless as a source of humor, as in John Waters’ A Dirty Shame), it represents a bold effort to cross the boundaries of social convention and promote true understanding and equality, even though such an issue is outside the scope of its plot. Perhaps even more significant is its revelation of prejudices and social gaps that exist within the gay community itself; the bear movement has largely developed as a reaction against the ostracization of men who fall outside the accepted standards of male beauty celebrated by the “mainstream” of gay society, and the movie makes it clear that there is still a lack of understanding and acceptance between these two factions of the culture. This factor, too, is beyond BearCity’s intentional purpose, except at an observational level, though it does play a role in the plot insofar as it provides the inner conflict that initially catapults its protagonist into a strange new world and provides the motivation for Roger’s reluctance to become involved with someone from outside the community. With so much riding on its shoulders, it is admirable that BearCity does not fall into the trap of taking itself too seriously and playing into its own importance; it would be even more admirable if it were a better film. Still, in its best moments it offers surprising depth and disarming honesty, and acquaints us with memorable characters who remain with us after the credits roll; and even in its worst moments, it is harmless and likable, a charming bit of wish-fulfillment fantasy that satisfies the universal need to believe in the power of true love, no matter what your preferences are with regard to gender- or body hair.