film note: American Vagabond

Too pretty, too young

American Vagabond
Directed by Susanna Helke
Finland | Denmark, 2013

For me the most significant moment of this expressive documentary from Finnish director Susanna Helke occurs during a flatly delivered voiceover from main character, James Temple. Temple is a homeless gay youth who hopped a bus with his boyfriend to San Francisco to escape his verbally abusive father and a general hostility toward his sexuality in Chico, California. Helke’s camera conducts a handheld, wide-angle tour of Golden Gate park at dawn, where many homeless camp out at night. Though Temple’s voiceover complains and characterizes the city as gray, the people as gray, the pigeons as gray, what we’re shown is far from it. Instead, it’s a beautiful borderline-wild oasis dividing a city in half, a city James came to expecting to be smiled upon by the “Gay Gods.” The moment defines what’s great about this film and where it fails, and where the character fails us.

Aided by Samuli Kosminen’s mysterious and award-winning synthetic score, Helke presents a sympathetic impression of Temple and his boyfriend Tyler as they try to survive on the streets, ignored by other gay men in general, except for the ones who exploit them for sex in exchange for money or a place to crash. But in form and style it’s an elegy rather than an exposé. As a result, we learn about 18-year-old James’ prosecution for having sex with an underage boy much later in the film than we would have if Helke had been concerned with narrative and traditional documentation. I was frustrated by the end at not knowing what happened after his conviction. If he’s in jail, where did these voiceovers come from? Other events in James’ sojourn can’t be placed reliably in a coherent timeline, either. I had no idea how long the two were homeless and I think that matters, especially as we meet other gay youth who have been roughing it for years.

It also might have helped if James himself had been a more interesting subject. Instead, he seems a bit under-educated and makes himself look dumb more than once, remarking on the small penises of Asian men and comparing cops’ rounding up the homeless to Nazis persecuting Jews. Other than a commitment to letting James speak for himself, I was a bit baffled as to why Helke decided to include these observations but I guess she expected the cuteness of the couple, who eat up a lot of screen time just cuddling, to make up for that lack of character. Tyler seems to have an interesting background — he’s older than James and apparently was in the military. But these facts get about 10 seconds of coverage. Otherwise, he’s just hanging out in a dingy white hoody with a self-conscious grin on his face. Their relationship is perhaps the biggest mystery this film presents.

Homeless queer youth is a problem but the film really doesn’t create any sense of urgency about the issue and provides little political or social context for it, other than generalized homophobia. What we’re supposed to do with this portrait after the final close-up I have no idea, other than to go, awww.

The strongest formal element of the film is the shift in perspective about halfway through as James’ mom gets a prominent role in voiceover. We hear her coming around to loving her gay son again and she gets involved in his life, more or less accepting Tyler as part of it. James’ dad won’t allow the two of them to come home to Chicago, so mom buys them a tent, gives them blankets and provides them with food. This probably seems nuts to the Europeans who produced and financed this short film, as it should.

The intentions of this film are good, and it’s lovely to look at, but there’s not much to chew on afterward. Its visual beauty just might be its biggest problem.