There’s a rope of dramatic tension at the heart of Bruce McDonald’s new film, “Weirdos,” that’s as fascinating in theory as it is frustrating in practice, found in the emotional gap between a young man, Kit (Dylan Authors), and his father, Dave (Allan Hawco). Kit is gay. Dave is an unassuming homophobe. “Weirdos” starts off with Kit and his “girlfriend,” Alice (Julia Sarah Stone), taking a Nova Scotian road trip from Antigonish to Sydney, where Kit’s mother (Molly Parker) resides, having divorced Dave prior to the events of the film; Kits wants to live with his mom for ostensible reasons that have nothing to do with Dave’s prejudices, while Dave remains utterly oblivious to his son’s discomfort (and, for a time, even his very disappearance, to boot).
But “Weirdos” scarcely dramatizes the child-parent rift that drives its drama for its running time. It doesn’t even articulate that rift until we’ve meandered about halfway into the film’s narrative, and by then the thread has been diluted. Maybe McDonald wants to treat Kit’s true reason for absconding as revelatory. Maybe he means for “Weirdos” to play with its cards close to its chest, keeping Kit’s secret under lock key much as Kit does the same himself. Coming out is, after all, no small thing, especially for someone growing up in the 1970s. If Kit must hide his sexual orientation from his family and friends alike, then maybe it’s appropriate for “Weirdos” to follow his lead.
The problem with this approach is that playing coy with character and with conflict holds the film in limbo, putting distance between McDonald’s audience and his plot. In fairness, neither he nor Authors try especially hard to disguise Kit’s gay identity; “Weirdos” opens as he salutes his Elton John poster while packing his bags, and each time Alice asks him about when he plans on having goodbye sex with her, he ducks the question. The more he deflects, the clearer a picture we get of what it is that Kit can’t bring himself to say aloud, and this happens well before Alice starts wondering about the amount of attention he pays to a boy he meets at a beach party. If the film isn’t frank about who Kit is, it doesn’t exactly try to pull the wool over our eyes, either. The absence of forced handholding is refreshing.
It’s for this very reason, though, that McDonald’s artful reservation stalls “Weirdos” from going anywhere interesting for its first two acts. Instead, it meanders. For some, meandering might be enough, especially for anyone familiar with and fond of McDonald’s other road trip films, such as “Highway 61,” in which the journey is meant to be more the point than the actual destination. For others, “Weirdos” coolness will suck all of the air out of the room. Considering the weight of McDonald’s subject matter, the movie is remarkably light and airy, so the viewing experience at least is pleasant rather than merely tolerable; the presentation in particular gives us a reason to hang on, thanks to its black and white color scheme and cinematographer Becky Parson’s crisp, breezy camerawork. (Like so many contemporary achromatic movies, from “Embrace of the Serpent” to “Blue Jay” to “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” “Weirdos” will make you wonder why more people don’t shoot more pictures this way.)
But the decision to push off open discussion of Kit’s source of unrest prevents the film from making as strong a statement as it ought to. Nothing that happens here is treated with proper gravity until Kit and Alice arrive at his mom’s house, and even then “Weirdos” tends to rotate more around her dysfunction than dig beneath Kit’s exterior. That’s not even getting into the odd conflation in protagonists; it’s hard to tell whether McDonald is trying to tell Kit’s story or Alice’s. The perspective swaps back and forth from his to hers, which would be fine if either the shift in view felt natural instead of jarring, or the film didn’t begin by rooting itself specifically in Kit’s background. By consequence, we get only a glimpse of who Kit and Alice are as both a pair and as individuals, and the primal pains at the center of “Weirdos” is left unexplored: Kit’s pain at feeling rejected by his own dad, and Alice’s at Kit’s inability to be upfront with her about who he is.
There’s so much more that “Weirdos” could say that it chooses not to, and to an extent that’s okay; movies generally don’t need to proclaim everything to be about anything. But McDonald’s inclination not to assert his themes feels too self-conscious, as though he’s uncertain how to confront the very personal turmoils that act as the film’s engine; to make up for those doubts, he fills in the margin with quirk, notably by evoking Andy Warhol (Rhys Bevan-John) to serve as Kit’s spirit animal. (This flourish only makes any sense once Parker’s character shows up, and even then the image of Warhol continues to baffle.) The results aren’t unwatchable, or even especially bad, but they’re significantly less satisfying than they deserve to be. [C]