I really liked 2009’s Shank, as while it was a bit rough around the edges, it felt like a really different kind of coming out story, following young Cal (Wayne Virgo), who grew up in the most deprived areas of Bristol. Hanging around a group of rough friends and getting involved in muggings and other criminal activity, he also has to deal with the fact he’s gay. It’s an extremely homophobic environment, but a meeting with a young French man – who he’d help mug – offers the possibility of a very different life.
Cal is the follow-up to that movie, and while it follows the same central character it is essentially a standalone movie. This time around Cal has been called back from France by the news that his mother is ill and in hospital – although sickness hasn’t lessened her dislike for the fact her son is gay. He arrives back in Bristol at the height of recession, with riots on the streets and the Occupy movement camped out on one of the city’s greens.
It’s not a great homecoming, and it isn’t helped by his Auntie Jane (Emily Corcoran), a drunken ‘character’ who’s not above taking money from Cal or trying to make him straight when she stumbles in late at night (they’re not actually related, so we’re thankfully not talking incest here). Things get worse when Cal attempts to stop what looks like an attack going on in a public toilet, which ends up with a man called Ivan (Daniel Brockelbank) stealing his passport.
It turns out Ivan is a particularly nasty pimp and the man that he was attacking is Jason (Tom Payne), who he rents out to paying gents. Cal ends up helping Jason out and giving him a place to stay, and while he initially shuns Jason’s advances, they soon can’t deny their attraction. While the city decays around them, they haven’t seen the last of Ivan, who still has Cal’s passport.
As with Shank, Cal is a mix of rather sweet intimate moments and looks at the harsher side of life. This is a film that’s very interested in the state of society following the financial crash and how the people who were already on the edge of survival are being made to pay the brunt of benefit cuts and the removal of services. There is a slight sense that this would have felt more timely a couple of years ago, but there’s still a righteous anger that shines through the film, showing off a grimy, gritty city on the edge of a collapse into anarchy.
Unfortunately it perhaps pushes this social realist idea a little too far, to the point where it stops feeling totally real and becomes a slightly middle-class vision of societal decay, told from the outside. Part of the problem are the number of scenes that are about making a point about the problems poor people face, rather than feeling true to the way people actually act. It means the film can deal with lots of issues – from trying to sign on, to how you can end up in prostitution – very quickly, but the way it’s done sometimes pulls it away from feeling true to life-as-lived, even if it’s always true to the point it’s trying to make.
Where the film really works (which was also true of Shank) is in its handling of Cal as a character and his burgeoning relationship with another man. There’s a constant tension that makes every movement towards romance all the more powerful. The film manages a true intimacy in the scenes between Cal and Jason, and it’s here that the decay of society comes into its own. There’s a power to these two men finding each other, despite their difficult situations and the crumbling city around them.
While Shank was a different kind of coming out story, this is a different kind of romance, but overall it doesn’t work quite as well as the earlier film. Shank also had a slightly heavy-handed social realist bent, but it never overwhelmed the core of the film. With Cal, the sledgehammer approach to austerity often dominates the movie (not helped by a slightly disjointed first 15-minutes before the movie starts to find its feet), meaning that while it certainly gets full marks for effort, it isn’t quite as successful as its predecessor.
I may sound harsher than I want to be, as there are parts of the movie that are really good. When it sticks to the characters and how they’re dealing with the deprivation around them, it’s actually an excellent film, it’s just when it tries to be bigger than that – and forcing it through the characters rather than allowing it to come from them – that it doesn’t always work.
I genuinely wish I didn’t have qualms about the movie, as it is different from so many other gay-themed films, taking on the type of characters who are either ignored or normally treated in a slightly condescending way. Cal is proof that these are people are well worth making film about, even if the movie itself is a decent watch but doesn’t quite make it to greatness.
Overall Verdict: The impact of great characters and a well-handled central relationship are lessened by the fact the film is so keen on making points about societal decay that it stops feeling real. Cal has laudable aims, but perhaps pushes them so far that they stop the film being everything it could have been.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac