Life is a puzzle that’s not meant to be solved, just experienced. The same is true of Hunter Lee Hughes’ ingenious feature film, Guys Reading Poems – a majestic, all-embracing account of how a vulnerable young boy learns to glibly mold his childhood suffering into art, tenderness and creative literature. Astutely constructing the motion picture as a poetry-imbued testimony for the transformative power of imagination in relieving pain, the director manages to craft a gripping mindbender that compels the viewer to gasp both in terror and awe of the complex intricacies and repercussions of heartrending art.
Make no mistake – this isn’t your regular gay indie film with an overt, LGBTQ-themed plot line. The movie was initially intended as an online project, was shot entirely in black and white 1950s aesthetics and its poetic nuances require a literary connoisseur to fully unveil. After the parental figure (Alexander Dreymon) vanishes from his life, a young boy (Luke Judy) is confronted with disillusion and abandonment at a fragile age. Forced to face isolation head-on, the child attempts to find love and connection in his beloved Mother (Patricia Velasquez), a blasé avant-garde painter. Little does the boy know that the woman is devastated and plans on ending her creative dry spell by acting out an innovative, but vicious form of art. Attempting to pour her heartbreak and talent into her new visionary endeavor, the mentally disturbed woman locks up the boy in a puppet box and turns her own son’s torment into an acclaimed art project.
Using neo-noir style and haute couture costume design, the film’s very first frames immediately carry the viewer into a surreal story, both visually and emotionally. The 32 unique poems are tactfully integrated into the film’s dreamlike fabric and depict the boy’s canny journey to wholeness and doleful forgiveness. Carefully selected from Romantic authors and contemporary gay poets alike, each text provides psychological clues into the mind of the main character, as well as a glimpse into the resourceful ways through which he chooses to cope with separation, emptiness and abuse. Once an all-male secret society enters the boy’s life, the film’s poetry-as-dialogue begins to take shape and scatters subtle hints for the viewer to pick up on. In plain meta fashion, we are presented with life’s most perplexing questions – what is love, is there any real meaning for humanity, can art transcend its ethical boundaries – under the guise of a performative reality that is as mind-bending as the film’s baffling literary puzzle.
I feel that further recognition is due for the movie’s masterful ability to depict the harrowing impact that family has over today’s youth. In an era where every teenager is seemingly more and more cruel and rebellious towards their parents, Guys Reading Poems tastefully discloses how much the caregivers in our lives can aid or hinder our growth and how our childhood scars carry on with us well into adulthood. “The Kid’s” character renders this concept flawlessly, revealing how trauma and neglect can easily turn into unrelenting anger. Similarly, this idea is embodied in the Mother’s behavior and coping mechanisms, as her deep-seated grief and resentment impel her to turn her creative mind into a palpable tool for violence. Here is where this indie motion picture weightily differentiates itself from its same-genre relatives. Despite proclaiming art and literature as limitless in their cathartic capacity to help us survive solitude and malice, the film very clearly portrays the gut-wrenching ethical implications of boundless creativity.
In an already standardized cinematic context that emphasizes shock value and touts the liberating benefits of controversial art, Hughes’ film puts forth a different type of emancipation – namely that of self-conscious creativity. Banking on this synchronous display of the duality of art, the movie entrusts us with the ability to grasp the many facets of imagination in the context of the human psyche and leaves the viewer with a heavy, incessant question in mind – when does art stop and brutality begin? It is at this point that the director reminds us that Guys Reading Poems is a fascinating and encroaching puzzle. But it’s one that is meant to be savored and cherished, rather than meticulously figured out.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Hunter Lee Hughes