THE DELTA

Directed and written by Ira Sachs

Starring Shayne Gray and Thang Chan

Distributed by Strand Releasing

***

Faced with certain very low-budget films, I'm tempted to value them as much for what they promise for what's actually present in the film. THE DELTA, the first feature by Ira Sachs, is one of these films. I don't mean to take anything away from the film's accomplishments, just to say that it promises larger accomplishments from Sachs in the future. Centering around a liaison between a teenage boy and a half-black/half-Vietnamese immigrant, THE DELTA is a refreshing exception to the endless parade of derivative resume exercises that have come to pass for American independent films. It's a also one of the few recent "gay films" that avoids both "Look ma, I'm so transgressiveÓ' posturing (perhaps best exemplified by Gregg Araki) and "Gays are people too!" defensiveness (perhaps best exemplified by British made-for-TV movies like HOLLOW REED.) As a gay man, I should be delighted to see the rising number of gay American films. I am delighted, in theory, but in reality, going to see a "gay film" more often feels like an act of duty or (at best) self-esteem boosting than an act of cinephilia. The demand for "positive images" and "role models" is perfectly understandable, but the simple desire not to be demonized or stereotyped can easily cross over into wanting to be flattered.

For its first half, THE DELTA appears to be about Lincoln Bloom (Shayne Gray), a white, middle-class teenager who alternates between nights out with his girlfriend, Monica Rachel (Zan Huss), and anonymous sex with men whom he picks up at a roadside crossing. Sachs skillfully evokes the potential awkwardness and hesitations of sex; the most memorable of these encounters is an awkward roleplaying session in a hotel room where Lincoln responds to queries like "Do you like your big daddy?" by mumbling "Uh yeah, I guess." We follow Lincoln's night-time adventures at a leisurely pace; for a while, the film seems to nothing more than yet another character study of a Troubled Teen's Identity Crisis. But just when this crisis begins to become boring, Lincoln runs into one of his pickups, a Vietnamese man whose real name is Minh Nguyen but who calls himself "John" (Thang Chan), at an adult video booth. The two men spend the night on a boat belonging to Lincoln's dad. They also spend the next day together but wind up separating after almost getting arrested for setting off illegal fireworks. Lincoln heads back home to Monica and his worried father.

Frankly, Lincoln isn't a particularly interesting character. The real originality of THE DELTA becomes apparent in its final half hour, which follows John, a far more complex character (and a far more talkative and articulate one, despite the language barrier.) The design behind Sachs' structure also becomes apparent here. The seeming aimlessness of the first half hour is replaced by a growing sense of alienation and frustration. These emotions come to a head in a surprise ending. The ending doesn't go down easily (and it's impossible to explain why without ruining the film for those who haven't seen it), but it speaks volumes about the toll of American racism and homophobia.

I don't want to make too many claims for THE DELTA. Certainly, it's a flawed film. Iddo Patt's sound design leaves something to be desired, especially for the migraine-prone; whenever two people talk at once, their talk turns into an incomprehensible, cacophonous buzz. Had Sachs cast an actor capable of more psychological nuance than Thang Chan, the ending may have been come across more convincingly. (All of the actors are non-professionals, and it shows.) But these flaws stem mostly from inexperience or lack of money, not a lack of ambition or craftsmanship. Sachs has cited Fassbinder as an influence, and like Fassbinder, he knows that oppression is most powerful and most difficult to fight when "society" becomes internalized. It's clear that he conceived the final scene as a provocation rather than a neat wrap-up with a clear message; in terms of what it implies about John's past and future, it suggests enough material for another feature. If Lincoln and John's desires send them into difficult and potentially dangerous territory, the film has the courage to follow without presuming to know everything or pass judgment.