It feels so very weird to say this, considering that one is a low-budget indie drama and the other is a special effects-laden sci-fi spectacular, but it's all too true anyway: "Hard Pill" is the movie "X-Men: The Last Stand" wanted to be but couldn't.
"X-Men," you no doubt recall, was a failed grab at social commentary in which superhero mutants are tempted with a "cure" that would remove their powers and return them to normal; it was, among other things, an attempt to examine how some in this world view homosexuality as a disease that can be treated and removed. "Hard Pill" dials down the science fiction but presents the same curious scenario: what if someone made a pill that could cure gayness?
The result here is a daring, captivating exercise in "what if" that succeeds because it focuses entirely on the personal experience. Tim (Jonathan Slavin) is a gay man with plenty of friends but a disappointing love life; tired of a culture that prefers looks over personality and sex over love, he's worked himself into a deep funk, just in time for his thirty-third birthday. Maybe he'd be happier if he were straight? Why not? After all, women are always flirting with him, while men always pass him by.
So he signs up for an experimental drug that will suppress all homosexual tendencies and leave you straight as an arrow. And for a while, he's happy - he's hooked up with a lovely new girlfriend (Jennifer Elise Cox) and cleared his life of the excess baggage that came with clingy relationships (most notably a highly confusing one with his straight best friend). Needless to say, things do not remain happy.
The simple reason "Hard Pill" works is because of its focus on character. Writer/director John Baumgartner shows a sharp eye for capturing the realism within the fantastic; these are all actual people with actual problems, and were a pill like this actually introduced into our own world, it would indeed affect not only those taking the medicine, but everyone around them, too. The script (assisted with heavy dialogue improvisation by the cast, adding yet another layer of "real" sensibility) fills itself with complicated relationships, of which Tim is the center. Sally (Susan Slome) is Tim's best gal friend, and it's so very natural that her love for Tim would lead to an immediate connection once Tim starts taking the drug. Yet that connection fades as Tim moves on. There's a truth to this relationship and its evolution that hits hard, a collision whose impact depends on strong writing and even stronger acting. "Hard Pill" supplies both.
Other relationships struggle as well - we watch, for instance, as Tim's promiscuous friend Joey (Scotch Ellis Loring) begins to want more in his own love life, a desire set off as he sees what the pill is doing to Tim. This is a striking counter-story that supports Tim's adventures expertly.
It's notable that in working with this scenario, Baumgartner avoids dealing with the people who could, assuming this story to be true, actually benefit from such a pill. (Or, at least, the people whom the drug companies would claim would benefit.) Instead, he focuses on the kind of person who would in fact try such a thing despite it being a very bad idea: people, like Tim, who struggle to convince themselves that such a change would equal instant happiness. As such, it becomes not only an essay on homosexuality in the modern age, but it also gets to be a satire on the drug industry at large, companies that feed off the notion that you can always be better if you take a pill, never mind if you actually need it.
Lest you think that all this thoughtfulness and deep personal interplay leaves "Hard Pill" a dry, heavy drama, understand that the film comes with a playful side, most notable in an on-screen "sexuality meter" that gauges each character's place on the sexual spectrum. It's clever stuff (and helps set up a masterful punchline in one scene), and Baumgartner sprinkles plenty of lighter, witty moments like this throughout his picture. It's a delicate balance, but it works, and "Hard Pill" winds up being biting, funny, heartbreaking, and witty all at once.
Shot on the cheap with digital video, this indie production isn't very sharp looking, but hey, you can always read the look of the movie as adding to the intimate feel of the story. Presented in the original 1.85:1 widescreen format, with anamorphic enhancement.
There's not much to the 5.1 surround soundtrack, although it is quite effective in delivering crisp dialogue and providing a wonderful showcase for Mike Petrone's gorgeous musical score. No other audio tracks or subtitles are available.
"Making Hard Pill" is a nine-minute, detail-heavy rundown of the movie's history. It's worth a spin, if only to see how they got so much out of so little. (Example: they filmed after-hours at the offices of Baumgartner's day job.) The geniune excitement everyone has for the project is thankfully far from the hokey EPK cheese of big budget affairs.
That excitement also appears in a twelve-minute extended interview with Baumgartner and Slavin, who go into greater depth regarding choices made in making the film and building the central character.
A quickie outtake reel shows us plenty of on-set antics, most of which involve somebody making a Jan Brady joke around Cox. (Also watch for character actor Beth Grant cracking about "Sparkle Motion.")
We wrap things up with a theatrical trailer and a gallery of a handful of other Wellspring releases.
Note: All features are presented in a full frame (1.33:1) format, with clips and outtakes from the film presented in flat letterbox.
Note no. 2: In a disc glitch that may or may not be exclusive to my copy, there's no visible cursor/pointer/whatever on the special features page. I'd click my remote arrows like crazy and see nothing; I had to click around willy-nilly and hope I ended up at the right extra. (This occurred on multiple players.) So heads up there.
Once again, the indie scene succeeds where the big studios fail, as "Hard Pill" supplies the kind of intelligent, thoughtful, personal, effective speculative fiction that doesn't come around nearly enough these days. While the low budget roots keep the film from being as sleek as it could have been, this becomes a matter of substance over style. And wow, is the substance good. Highly Recommended.