Tribeca Film Festival Review #4 - Blessed Boys / Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying
Following the friendship of two Italian boys, Silvia Brunelli’s first feature is a study on religiosity and masculinity that has a vehement belief in the ideas of the debut director. The film begins with Lino’s (Francesco Pellegrino) sister Annaluce performing a miracle while giving life to a dead bird. Then, Lino’s mom starts using her daughter’s miracle to get money from strong believers. While never making it obvious if Lino’s mom believes in the miracle or not, the film navigates between the ambiguity of the story and the characters. Lino himself is a very complex and difficult character. He has been friends with Mario (Vincenzo Antonucci) since they were kids and the two of them do everything together - including having sexual relations.. What Lino doesn’t know is that Mario is, as matter of fact, gay and is in love with him.
Through the way she directs the film, Brunelli is able to find the delicate intimacy and attraction that the film needs, doing miracles to a story that many times can feel overstuffed and convoluted. She is able to establish a relationship of trust between the characters even though they don't know what's happening with them. The similarities between Mario's personal discovery and Lino's moral questioning is able to make the story unfold in a compelling way. But where the film truly soars is in the moral ambiguity of Annaluce's religiosity. Much like Paul Verhoeven's Benedetta, Annaluce truly believes in her divine ability, increasingly bordering on Italian’s obsession with Catholicism. Whether the divinity of the story is real or not, it’s not the main focus of Brunelli’s film, as she seems to be more interested in the effects that this causes on the characters, especially in Lino.
Mario’s awakening is a less interesting story, but it never loses its importance to the development of the film. It's interesting to see how a person who knows someone all their life can begin to feel different in certain ways as time goes by. Despite their age, the character's homosexuality brings a coming-of-age feel to the film as we can perceive the differences in his behavior in relation to matters of sexuality and its relationship with Lino. Even if sometimes the film tries to tell too many stories for its own good, Blessed Boys ends up being a delightful debut for Brunelli and an amusing commentary on religiosity and faith.
Making a film about filmmaking is not an easy job. In the past decade there've been great films about the subject and many auteurs used the genre as a way to make more personal projects, but sometimes it can feel a little too much on the nose and egocentric for its own good, and that’s the main issue in Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying. The film follows Parker Seaman and Devin Das as they decide to travel to visit their friend Wes Schlagenhauf, who has recently contracted COVID-19. During their road trip, they decided to start shooting a film about Wes. While delivering some funny bits and musical numbers - like the “Adam’s Song” scene - the story can never quite come together as an inspired work of art.
Seaman and Das’ motivations are not that much interesting to deliver a fully engaging film. Sometimes the jokes don't work as well as they should've been, delivering some rough sequences that bring the whole film down. It’s not their fault though. The film seems doomed from the beginning as it tries to make fun of a global pandemic that killed millions of people. Making a film about someone dying of COVID while joking about it can only come across as mean spirited. Using it as a pretext to an alleged personal growth only makes it worse. People like Ricky Gervais and Dave Chapelle are examples of comedians thinking it’s okay to joke about offensive things in the name of art, and while I’m not putting Parker Seaman and Devin Das in the same position, it’s hard not to be repelled by the offensiveness of their narrative.
In the end, Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying cannot escape its own repulsiveness. It’s too much of a vanity project and not much more than just that. It’s not funny or smart enough to be considered edgy. Mostly, it lacks consistency and good writing.