A movie eight years in the making, More than Only is an unashamedly sentimental love story that really shouldn’t work as well as it does. Writer/director Michelle Leigh, in her debut feature, originated the idea as a way to vent her own frustrations with a storyline on a TV show, where a gay character’s relationship with his father was presented in a manner that didn’t ring true. From this humble beginning stemmed an entire narrative of its own right, telling the story of a young gay man who’s struggle to confess his love for his partner stems from living in the shadow of parental disapproval his entire life.
Leigh has spoken about how she hopes the film will move audiences in its depiction of a normal, loving relationship, potentially even making viewers with certain biases see past their own preconceptions and view this love story stripped of its labels. From a storytelling perspective, this isn’t anything particularly groundbreaking – but when it’s done with this much charm, and clear affection for its two main characters, then it feels every bit as invigorating as the first time you heard a story like this.
Justin Johnson (Jonathan Daniel Miles) is a privileged rich kid, whose parents only ever wanted two things – a straight son who got straight A’s. Bankrolling his college fund, he’s flown the nest and is finally free to be himself, until he gets phone calls from his disapproving father that always lead to committing various acts of self harm. Despite a healthy support network around him, his lack of parental support often sees him back in the hospital (for treatment that’s, somewhat ironically, bankrolled by those same disapproving parents). One day, he becomes infatuated with Michael (Bjorn Anderson), the nurse he’s being treated by, and starts his mission to take him on a date. Eventually, the pair fall for each other, but baggage from their pasts comes back to haunt them – not least Justin’s inability to say “I love you”, when a lifetime of being looked down upon has made it near impossible for him to love himself.
This may sound like a criticism, but it’s testament to the strength of More than Only that it manages to be so powerful when it offers nothing audiences will be unfamiliar with. The central love story is genuinely affecting; the playful banter between Justin and Michael slowly morphing into something deeper before our eyes – they even manage to pull off the tricky balancing act of portraying an argument between two people who clearly care for each other. Equally, the coming of age aspect (a person learning to overcome their deeply ingrained self loathing and accept the love in their life) comes from a path much trodden in previous LGBTQ films. But for a film so earnestly gooey-eyed in its romance, it’s refreshing to see a refrain from sentimentality in the father-son relationship. There’s a happy ending for Justin, but the film is smart enough to know that a happy ending in his family life wouldn’t ring true. Buried within the fantasy of a whirlwind romance is something far less savoury, and that helps make the impact of a loving relationship around it feel all the more powerful.
More than Only also pulls off the rare achievement of making a privileged rich character a subject of empathy without having to play down his circumstances. Within the opening voiceover, his family’s wealth and how that helps him fly through college is established immediately – and Leigh’s screenplay deserves credit for not making the audience see these problems as minor, simply because they all stem back to financial support. Justin lives in a central paradox; he needs the money to stay in college, but it’s only at college where he can be himself – an identity his father has repeatedly expressed he does not want his son to be. I can’t think of another recent film where the wealth status of a rich kid has been so integral to finding them empathetic, and how this unexpectedly makes for an engrossing drama despite itself.
More than Only is both a love story to make you swoon, and a coming of age drama that doesn’t opt for an easy, fairytale ending in its portrayal of a dysfunctional family relationship. It’s well worth seeking out.
All pictures reproduced courtesy of Michelle Leigh