Dramarama

Director: Jonathan Wysocki (USA). Year of Release: 2021

1994, Escondido, Southern California. The kind of neighbourhood where the cars still have Bush-Quayle bumper stickers, 2 years after the election. Gene is procrastinating in his bedroom when his mother calls and asks if he’s coming to church. He’d rather not – after all, he’s 17, nearly an adult. Besides which, he’s off to his friend Rose’s leaving do. Rose is flying to New York tomorrow to start a course at NYU. Gene’s mother reminds him that Rose goes to church and promises to pray for him.

Gene is hoping that tonight will be the night that he can finally come out to his closest friends. It’s not just Rose who’s going away. Oscar is going to study film in Los Angeles, Ally to study opera, and Claire to study something or other, but I can’t quite remember what. Claire always seems to be in the background, her interests ignored by the rest. Thinking about it, maybe Claire’s studying religion – she is VERY devout, and she and Rose both wear crucifix necklaces.

For the leaving do, everyone has to come as their favourite 19th Century literary character, which both provides useful exposition and shows us exactly how pretentious they are. Rose, always over-dramatic, comes as Miss Havisham, the child-like Claire comes as Alice, while Ally, the only one of them who seems to possess an ounce of street smart, dresses in scarlet as Mina Harker from Dracula.

The boys are less inventive. There’s nothing that particularly identifies Oscar with Sherlock Holmes, although you can see the attraction of just grabbing a deer stalker and magnifying glass and not having to worry any more about your costume. Similarly, Gene seems to have initially wanted to go as a pirate, but that didn’t work, so he’s calling himself Mr Hyde. Reminds me of a friend who went to a school fancy dress party as a plain clothes policeman (I went as a chamber maid).

The characters in Dramarama are both too young and too old for their real age. They have sleepovers, and seem to be entirely unprepared for adulthood to come. They learn about sex from Madonna’s book (released in 1992), Laura Palmer’s Diary and The Piano. Their naiveté is enhanced by their religious belief: when Gene suggests that sex before marriage should be at least considered, this is seen to be a great transgression.

At the same time, they try to pepper their conversations with literary quotes, and all seem to be unduly fond of Stephen Sondheim (Rose has a poster prominently on her bedroom wall). At one sense, they break up an argument so that they can act out a music video from They Might Be Giants (and not even the Big Hit). They act out a maturity that they clearly do not really possess.

The cat is put among the pigeons with the arrival of the pizza delivery guy – an acquaintance of theirs who is wiser and wittier than they will ever be. Whereas they use a vocabulary that they cannot fully control, he has an apt one-word description for each of them- It’s probably no accident that he’s called JD, We’ve already had a “Franny and Zooey” reference. He is both cooler than any of them, and also has a Holden Caulfield like sense for who are the real phoneys.

Reading the User Comments, it seems that I’m not supposed to like JD because he looks down on the theatre kids and their sleepovers, while he’s going to proper parties. It’s telling that it is Ally who goes with him to the party, even if she returns to the sleepover for the inevitable tearful reunion. JD dropped out of school, won’t be going to University and probably doesn’t live in a house with an outdoor swimming pool. He does look like he’s enjoying life, though.

There is much in Dramarama which would have any sane person hating it almost from the off. Let’s skip over seventeen year olds who are too religious to consider alcohol or sex before marriage but get off on literary costume parties. They are also rich enough to each drive a car and to live in houses with their own swimming pools. Why should I be interested in the petty crises of any of them?

This is a film about privileged kids who have not yet had to take any responsibilities. As such, it is very open to charges of superficiality. It really doesn’t matter what these people do and think. It probably means a lot more to people whose background and upbringing coincides much more closely to the protagonists than mine do. And yet it is all carried out with a degree of articulate charm, so I find it hard to begrudge it much.

There is one thing about the film that confuses me though. Dramarama seems to be a celebration of outsiders, of the people who don’t quite fit in, the ones who haven’t worked out how to be cool. So why is there a group of them? A true outsider would struggle to make any friends, let alone a group as supportive as this. Having said this, Ally makes the perceptive comment that they know little about each other and have little in common apart, maybe, for an appreciation of fart jokes.

There are a lot of 1990s references in the film – way too many, if truth be told. But there’s something sweet about the knowledge that Gene – who’s staying in Escondido doing cartoons in a community college – will be soon going to the cinema with a gay character to see some new film about a queen of the desert. Please don’t let me get too drawn into the film’s suffocating sentimentality, but that sounds quite sweet.

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