You know, the usual."
Calm down, Cam...it's only a movie. I sometimes get a little skeptical reading summaries for films, like this tidbit in reference to The New Twenty: "A tight and queer Big Chill for the new millennium"! Trying to force a comparison to such a popular film can easily backfire, and unnecessarily pointing out character ethnicities (Julie is a "fierce Asian") doesn't earn the film any favors. But after watching Chris Mason Johnson's directorial debut, I'm confident the promotional snafus were PR moves necessitated by a studio anxious to sell a product to specific demographics--not a sign of the filmmaker's vision.
The film's tagline ("Text is the new sex. Gay is the new straight. Friends are the new family. Thirty isn't what it used to be...") is more suitable, although the film feels a few years late for its time period. Twenty tells the tale of five college friends on the cusp of 30; it's 2006--seven years since graduation--and the group has stayed close while following different trajectories in New York City (the location given constant acknowledgement in some beautiful shots). There's no major plot here--the film just watches the lives and relationships of these people unfold over 90 minutes, culminating with an unfortunate bachelor party where problems reach their boiling point.
Alpha male Andrew (Ryan Locke) is tired of his investment banking career and longs for a new challenge; he gets increasingly jealous with the success of new fiancée Julie (Nicole Bilderback), another investment banker. Meanwhile, her gay brother Tony (Andrew Wei Lin) faces challenges in his new relationship, while his best bud Felix (Thomas Sadoski)--who still has a crush on Julie--delves deeper into drugs. Meanwhile, Ben (Colin Fickes) faces rejection in the workforce and online, where the brutal nature of image-obsessed gays causes him constant pain.
Andrew soon befriends short-tempered suit Louie (Terry Serpico of Army Wives) at the gym, and the two become business buddies in a risky new venture--a partnership that could prove ill-advised. Andrew asks Tony for financial help, but Tony is preoccupied with Robert (Bill Sage)--a successful older man he nervously picks up at the gym. Ben aches to find acceptance and a sense of belonging with both his friends and online chatters, generating a guilt that leads to a few bad decisions. But Felix is even worse for wear--despite interest from hookup Lucy (Cordelia Reynolds), he spirals deeper into depression and addiction.
The theme connecting all of their stories is loneliness and rejection--these people aren't happy, and varying degrees of self-destructive behavior soon threaten their bond. There have been plenty of films revolving around the angst of young professionals who have it much better than they think, and the idea of well-to-do friends having a mid-life crisis as they approach 30 might turn off some viewers: "Thirty's a milestone, therefore a crisis!" (If you want a new drinking game, take a swig every time you see a character contemplatively staring into a mirror.)
The New Twenty piles it on a little thick at times (add Less Than Zero to the comparison), but the acting is too good to dismiss. There's great chemistry among the cast --you believe these characters are friends. They have a natural rapport, and some of the film's most enjoyable moments come during the less dramatic sequences where they're just lounging and talking. Locke, Bilderback and Lin leave a lasting impression--I was captivated when they were on screen. They are strong actors playing strong characters. Their stories are the most intriguing, and each actor makes you care for them despite some serious character flaws. (Serpico also shines in the least-likable role: "I admit it...I go too far. It's my nature.")
It's the more socially awkward friends that require more work: Ben (the guy "fucking impervious to hints") may induce more pity than passion (he spends almost all of his time watching TV and chatting online). But Fickes makes you feel the pain, adding some nice character touches (I get the sense that his occasional "ghetto speak" is one of Ben's defense mechanisms). Fickes also injects some necessary comedy into the proceedings--his argument with a potential hookup in an early scene is hysterical. Despite good work from Sadoski, Felix is the hardest to warm up to. There are a lot of lonely souls here searching for happiness, and the overly intellectual Felix is lost from the beginning; we just don't get enough to hold onto with him.
It's hard to fully sympathize with everyone, especially when they exhibit selfish behavior--primarily their blindness to Felix's situation. They all become immune to each other; no one's really there when it matters the most. The script doesn't give each character their due--there needs to be a little less brooding and a little more soul searching and communication. As for the ending, it left me a little disappointed. I instantly cared about everyone here--the film had me, but ultimately it didn't do enough with its potential.
Twenty would have benefitted from a few more scenes that allowed some of the characters to show more vulnerability and depth; everyone's so self-absorbed, it can get suffocating. There are a few other minor missteps: Julie makes a decision that felt more convenient that real, and I wasn't fully sold on Tony's feelings for Robert--and Robert's patience with Tony (their subplot isn't given enough time to convince me of its sincerity).
But I'm guessing that's part of Johnson and co-writer Ishmael Chawla's purpose, to show how easy it is for ambition and pain to cloud your priorities. There's a natural flow to the film, and a nice mix of drama and humor. The film's most poignant moment, with Ben getting some sound advice from an unlikely source, is punctuated by an exclamation point you probably won't see coming. It's an odd yet refreshing mix that keeps you interested, and the film never gets too serious for its own good.
Even with its flaws, Twenty is full of likeable characters brought to life by solid performances. It's also refreshing to see how comfortably the gay and straight worlds co-exist here (if it weren't for the promotional material, you wouldn't even think about it). It just is, and that's so rare. There's no attempt to create meaningless conflict or discomfort out of the situation, no cheap tactics or surprise revelations that feel inauthentic (save for the poster and the DVD box cover, which resort to a maddening marketing cliché by using a shirtless Locke in the hopes of appealing to gay viewers).
It isn't perfect, and in the end The New Twenty is just a tiny bit off the mark. It may leave you a little cold, but it still shows compassion as it relays some very relatable problems. I cared about the characters here--given the choice, I'd spend more time with them. For a first feature, Johnson shows lots of promise. He is clearly an actors' director, and I'm anxious to see what else he has in store.