Fans of the unrelenting absurdism of Tim Robinson’s Netflix series I Think You Should Leave will be delighted to hear that an offbeat counterpart is currently making its way around the LGBTQ festival circuit. Cubby, the directorial debut of writer and star Mark Blane, is a distinctively queer spin on a comedic archetype largely reserved for straight protagonists: the man-baby who shirks adult responsibility at every opportunity, never ceasing to view the world through naive eyes.
The character of Mark Nabel wouldn’t seem out of a place in a Will Ferrell slacker comedy, or one of Tim Robinson’s more outlandish sketches – a familiar idea of a comic character to many, but one that feels thrillingly alien within a film aimed towards queer audiences. It helps Cubby feel distinctive among films currently making the festival rounds, even as it slots nicely into the lineage of lowbrow surrealism on American comedy’s weirder fringes.
Mark Nabel is a 26 year old from Indiana, who moves to New York City in order to find some purpose in life. Of course, things don’t go to plan; his only job is babysitting a six year old, which he hides from his mother and his roommate to avoid embarrassment and to maintain the assumption he earns enough to pay rent. There’s also his sheer romantic hopelessness, with his only sexual connection forged with an imaginary character called Leatherman, who has followed him everywhere since he first caught his eye in a porn magazine during his childhood. With one foot stuck in a fantasy world and the other halfway through the door of reality, he tries his best to get by while doing as little as possible.
On paper, Cubby sounds like the standard Noah Baumbach/Greta Gerwig comedy that has proved to be the standard template for American indie comedies of this decade. The film even opens with a parent and child car journey, much like Gerwig’s beloved Lady Bird, with the final destination being a neighbourhood little different to those in Baumbach’s New York efforts. These similarities feel more than merely cosmetic, as by letting the character of Mark loose within such a distinct world, Blane and co-director Ben Mankoff effectively rip up the rulebook of what to expect in this kind of film, with all the hyper-specific tropes (struggles to pay rent, an obsession with working in an art gallery) sent up to some ridiculous degree. We expect to follow naive dreamers within these New York stories (Baumbach and Gerwig’s Frances Ha being the most notable of these), meaning a joyous anarchy ensues when somebody who doesn’t share that disposition is unleashed in this world.
Cubby is also notable for being something of a departure from Blane’s previous work, most notably, writing and co-producing acclaimed documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson. It’s hard to imagine more of a sharp left turn between projects; a sombre look at an often overlooked figure in the LGBTQ history movement followed by a slacker comedy fixated on a character archetype that rarely figures within queer cinema. But Blane has approached the project with the same care and attention – even shooting on beautiful super 16mm Kodak film, with cinematographer Sinisa Kukic managing to capture unheralded beauty in oft-filmed streets. It’s created with an attention to detail that makes it so disparate from the diverse array of comedies it so frequently recalls.
In terms of its comedy, Cubby is undeniably an acquired taste. But it’s one that feels oddly refreshing in how it breathes new life into tropes that have grown tired on comedy’s straight mainstream.