With a story so detailed that it feels autobiographical, this earthy, natural drama can’t help but catch the audience by surprise as it pushes the characters through a series of intense situations. Golden Boy, which screened at FilmOut San Diego, is a strongly personal variation on the usual story of a young man who ends up lost on the streets of Los Angeles. Thankfully, director Stoney Westmoreland gives the film a loose, realistic vibe that helps undercut the movie’s sometimes overwrought plot points.
The young man in question is James (played by Mark Elias, who wrote the script with Jonathan Browning). It’s unclear why he came to Hollywood, but he’s barely making ends meet, and when he loses his dull job he finds himself homeless. As he considers selling his body in the park, he runs into wealthy acquaintance CQ (Lex Medlin), who offers him a room in his mansion and a job as a courier. He also encourages James to further develop his artistic ambitions. While helping improve his image, CQ invites James events where he meets the lively Natalie (Kimberly Westbrook) and the hard-partying Houston (Logan Donovan), who introduces James to drug-fuelled nightclub life. Separately, James meets nice-guy photographer Josh (Paul Culos) and starts a relationship with him.
Through all of this, a variety of elements hint that trouble is coming. For one, CQ is vaguely predatory, and the packages he has James delivering are more than a little suspect. There’s also the drug use, which causes problems that put James into debt, forcing him to work as a party host wearing just his underpants. And most engagingly for the audience, there’s the clear threat to his romance once Josh learns about James’ dodgy dealings. In other words, there’s the sense that this is brewing into a cautionary tale about the perils of drugs and gay sex.
These things add nagging tension to every scene, which makes Golden Boy solidly gripping. Even when it’s preachy, the film maintains sympathy with James, who is played with plenty of charm by Elias. It’s a nicely nuanced performance, which traces the rollercoaster of James’ experience. He may be aimless, but we root for him to sort himself out. That said, it’s clear from the start that he should stay away from Houston, played with life-of-the-party energy by the charismatic Donovan. And Medlin infuses the generous CQ with a mercurial dark side. Much more involving is the strong chemistry Elias finds with Culos’ relentlessly sensitive, intelligent and compassionate Josh.
Where all of this goes is somewhat pushy, mainly due to a severely violent turn of events in the final act. But the characters are strong enough to hold the interest: we care what happens to them. Westmoreland and his cast make sure that the story has a strong kick.