The Artist proved that there’s room in the world for silent movies, but the Oscar-winner still felt the need to hark back to the pre-talkies era to get us to accept its premise. Adults Only is a far more contemporary dialogue-free short film (technically it’s not a silent movie, as it does feature ambient sounds), from writer/actor Heath Daniels and director Michael J. Saul. The film premiered at the Torino GLBT Film Festival on April 24th, and makes its US debut at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival on May 2nd, before moving on to other fests throughout the year.
Fans of the Boys On Film DVD series of gay short films may remember Go Go Reject, which was also from Daniels and Saul. However, while that was a fun comedy about a guy who desperately wants to dance in gay clubs even though he doesn’t look like your usual Go Go Boy, Adults Only is a more serious, contemplative and overtly sexual tale.
Heath Daniels plays Matthew, who’s heading back from a photography assignment when he comes across two men having sex. He snaps a few shots, which seems to awaken his voyeuristic side. Wanting more exposure to the seamier side of sex, he ends up going to a porn arcade, where he experiences the excitement of watching other guys, as well as the rejection of those who aren’t interested.
His increasing interest in this anonymous world and its sexual possibilities is contrasted against flashbacks to an earlier relationship, showing us the high and lows that have resulted in him seeking out the world of the porn arcade.
Adults Only successfully manages to convey a sense of both excitement and melancholy. There’s a sadness about Matthew, and while initially it seems to be a film about a man discovering the thrills of voyeurism and anonymous encounters, the contrast of the flashbacks paints a more complex picture. At first there’s a sense of the anonymity of the arcades being a way to search for the sensation of connection and feeling that he’s missing, but in a way that doesn’t risk him being hurt again.
It’s a film about what’s behind sex, as well as the baggage that people inevitably bring with them. While it may appear that cruising for sex and voyeurism are purely about bodies and the physical, Adults Only is a reminder that those involved are human beings, with all the complexity that suggests. Behind the titillation, anticipation and release can be a whole range of other desires and motivations.
Thankfully though, while many films would pompously conclude that places like porn arcades are soulless holes that are only for the damaged, emotionally crippled and perverse, Adults Only is smarter than that. It knows that as it is indeed human beings involved in these hidden, ‘taboo’ interactions, even the most illicit activities can offer unexpected possibilities.
The lack of dialogue makes it a less directed journey than we often see. Sometimes with short films, the script is so direct and keen to ensure the audience understands its viewpoint that it ends up feeling limited and overly simplistic. With Adults Only, there’s no speech to try and force your brain in a particular direction. There are just images that allow you to take your own journey. This is the sort of film where different people will take different things from it, largely depending on their own life experience. With many films, that will result in some liking it while others will be left cold, but I feel that most gay people will get something from Adults Only, as its mix of sexual anticipation, nostalgia for lost love and the complexities of human interaction is something everyone can engage with.
It’s not perfect and indeed there are a few moments that could do with tightening. The first scene where we dip into flashback and everything goes black and white is a little clumsy, as if the filmmakers never quite worked out the best way to segue between the two timelines. Although having the present in colour and the past in monochrome works okay once the idea has been introduced (and indeed the film could be a little confusing otherwise), initially it comes across as a little sloppy.
Daniels makes a good lead for the film, with the sort of open, expressive face that helps ensure the audience is drawn in – something that’s especially important when there’s no dialogue. This sort of film can easily come across as a little too mannered and coldly sexual, but Daniels and Saul ensure it remains resolutely human, giving room for the audience to bring their own experiences of relationships and love, as well as the lure of illicit sex and eroticism.
Overall Verdict: Adults Only manages to be sexy, thoughtful, sad and stimulating (both mentally and in, err, other ways). While some dialogue-free films can come across as mannered and pretentious, Adults Only remains very human and underplays its ‘trick’ to allow the audience to bring themselves to this complex, nuanced film.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac