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National Anthem

Luke Gilford’s debut feature shows us what queer expression without restraint truly looks like, against the masculine backdrop of the Old West - from the 32nd edition of Raindance 

The masculine backdrop of the Old West has been used for many stories of LGBTQ+ life. The most obvious may be Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005), but films like The Power of The Dog (Jane Campion, 2021) and Cowboys (Anna Kerrigan, 2020) also take questions of sexuality and identity to this most traditionally heteronormative of worlds. National Anthem is the latest in than lineage, however this coming-of-age drama does focuses more on glory than strife.

Charlie Plummer takes the lead as Dylan, a 21-year-old man doing his best in order to survive in rural New Mexico. Belittled and put upon by his immature mother (Robyn Lively), he is a father figure to his little brother and breadwinner for the house, moving between different construction jobs. One day, he gets the opportunity to work on a ranch run by mainly LGBTQ+ rodeo performers, and finds a new home with a diverse and accepting group. Questioning his own identity and what the American Dream means to him, he risks the judgement of home as he falls for free spirited, transgender rodeo performer Sky (Eve Lindley).

The juxtaposition of Americana with Queer culture is a compelling one, and something that makes National Anthem more than the standard coming-of-age story it could have been. In the world of the ranch, a new vision of freedom is created, where expression and individuality run rampant, creating a utopian vision especially for those who belong to that community. Dylan’s awakening is far from straightforward, but at a time when a lot of Queer cinema focuses on tragedy, the glory of knowing yourself and finding family is at the heart of everything it does.

To those new to the themes of the film, the sight of Dylan masturbating to a fantasy of Sky in an American flag-themed outfit may seem provocative, but a deeper look shows something more personal at play. The stakes vary, as the camera is happy to sit with characters in moments both happy and sad, observing their reactions to both. There isn’t much in the sense of staged conflict, however he internal issues Dylan faces as the film progresses make this journey all the more human.

Plummer has made hay on the ranch before, as part of the critically adored Lean On Pete (Andrew Haigh, 2017), and while Dylan’s mannerisms are similar, this proves a very different film. Lindley’s performance is captivating, becoming a siren for everything Dylan might be inside. There’s a touch of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to her character Sky, a trans woman flourishing in the safety of the ranch. However, rather than simply exist for Dylan to romanticise, she represents the liberty that seems so far away for him. Elsewhere, supporting players like Mason Alexander Park’s Carrie and Rene Rosado as ranch owner Pepe give the group familiarity, while Lively is more than she seems as the neglectful parent.

National Anthem doesn’t ask the viewer for rage, pity, or consideration of its subjects. Instead, it offers a portrait of Queer joy in all its many facets that seems to be a rarity in even the most daring of films. A strong feature debut for director Luke Gilford, who stakes his claim as an intriguing filmmaking voice.

National Anthem premieres during the 32nd edition of Raindance:

By Victoria Luxford - 10-06-2024

London-born Victoria Luxford has been a film critic and broadcaster since 2007, writing about cinema all over the world. Beginning with regional magazines and entertainment websites, she soon built up...

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