Charmingly made with a sensitivity to what gay teens face on a daily basis, the 2013 Australian indie Monster Pies seems like the very definition of a sleeper. Writer-director Lee Galea touches on some profound stuff here - memory, loss, and the fragility of childhood - yet he also indulges in some of the weepiest, most manipulative and silly dramatics I've ever seen. The film is more underwhelming than anything else, overall, yet two young characters at the center of this story - teen classmates who deal with their feelings in markedly different ways - are appealing enough for it to almost work.
Monster Pies is definitely a modest effort, filmed on a shoestring with an intimate, character-driven scenario. The movie's color-saturated photography and purposefully bland camera setups capture the banality of suburbia, where its two protagonists - normal guys - navigate their outsider status at the stifling school they attend. Mike (Tristan Barr), a gawky film enthusiast, notices a stunningly handsome new arrival in the school's main office. Initially figuring that the withdrawn William (Lucas Linehan) will join the chorus of other bullies who mutter "faggot" to him in the hallways, Mike is surprised to find William an articulate, smart young man. Eventually, Mike's longing to know William better is satisfied when they're paired up for an assignment in their English Lit class. With William's help, Mike comes up with the idea of filming Romeo and Juliet as a gender-twisted allegory in which the tormented lovers are played by Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolfman.
As Mike and William's collaboration gets more involved, they begin to find that they have a lot in common (including coming from broken families). An inevitable bond develops between them, a connection that blossoms into a serious relationship. It comes as a liberating relief to them, yet not being able to live openly in this repressed environment adds more stress to their young lives. With a drunken, homophobic father, a Down Syndrome-afflicted young friend, and a brain-damaged mother needing constant supervision, William has too much to deal with already, and the pressure of coming to terms with being gay makes him crack. Although Mike is more secure in his sexuality, he too isn't out and fears the repercussions from telling his recently divorced parents about who he is. The scenes with just the two main characters have a terrific intimacy, aided by believable work by Barr and Linehan. The first part of the film benefits from sharp, subtle observations about what it's like to be young and gay - which makes it all the more disappointing to witness the direction which Lee Galea chose to take the story. I'm not going to reveal any spoilers here; suffice to say that the plot eventually goes off the deep end with overstated, unnecessarily soap opera-ish plotting. And it involves crying - lots of crying.
Monster Pies mixes its bland suburban setting with touches that suggest it's set in the immediate past (William works at a video rental store stocked with VHS tapes; the female characters wear dowdy, '90s-style clothing). While it adds some uniqueness to the project, it also seems to underscore how often dated and clunky the script itself is. That clumsiness extends to a lot of the histrionic dialogue and scenes straight out of a vintage After School Special (like the reactions of the parents to their sons' coming out). Despite all that, I look forward to whatever Galena and his young leads have for the future.
The digitally shot 16x9 widescreen image used on TLA Releasing's Monster Pies DVD is clean and professional looking master. The cinematography has a cold, clinical feel, but the colors are appealingly fresh and light/dark levels stay true-to-life.
Monster Pies sports an agreeable Stereo soundtrack. Although the music is mixed in too loudly, dialogue is clear and pleasant. No subtitles or alternate audio on this disc.
Lee Galea's 2002 short, Karmarama, makes an appropriate bonus here since it deals in the same territory as Monster Pies. In it, an outwardly homophobic teen discovers what it's like to be the persecuted one. The disc also includes a few minutes' worth of Deleted Scenes and a Theatrical Trailer.
Movies about maladjusted, misunderstood teens are a dime a dozen, yet Monster Pies sticks out for its Australian setting and a moving (but heavy-handed) storyline. Lee Galea made the script for this feature (his first) much too melodramatic for it to overcome its well-intentioned themes of tolerance and family bonding. The two lead actors are great, however, and casual viewers with an interest in gay dramas would do well to check this one out. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist and sometime writer who lives in sunny (and usually too hot) Phoenix, Arizona. Among his loves are oranges, going barefoot and blonde 1930s movie comedienne Joyce Compton. Since 2000, he has been scribbling away at Pop Culture weblog Scrubbles.net. One can also follow him on Twitter @4colorcowboy.