Akron, the minimalistic yet affecting indie drama and feature debut of filmmakers Brian O’Donnell and Sasha King, is titled after the fifth largest city in Ohio, which is of course the setting of this poignant little film about family, young love, ghosts from the past and the power of forgiveness. What sounds like a generic choice for the movie’s name, by the time credits roll should become clear it’s actually a subtle way of symbolically conveying the story’s thematic scope.
Co-directed by O’Donnell and King from a script written by the former, Akron isn’t your run-of-the-mill coming-of-age tale of tormented young love usually screening at LGBTQ film festivals. Despite plenty of conflict, the challenges faced by college students Benny (Matthew Frias) and Christopher (Edmund Donovan) transcend the whole coming out, self-loathing and bullying repertoire we’re used to seeing and that’s great news. This is not a niche film but rather a look at the lives of some people who live in Akron, Ohio, and some of those people happen to be gay.
When they first meet on the football field sparks immediately fly between these two college freshmen that begin dating and become close rather quickly. There’s not even a hint of uncomfortable awkwardness about living their relationship out in the open, neither at school or back home. Benny lives with his parents and younger sister whilst Christopher, although being from Akron as well, lives on campus as his parents are divorced and he had moved away with his mother.
When the boys go on a road trip to Florida for spring break and visit Christopher’s mother, a dramatic secret from the past that unexpectedly links their families comes to surface, wrecking havoc in Benny and Christopher’s relationship. An old wound that never healed gets painfully reopened in Benny’s family, resulting in the boy being torn between his love for Christopher and the one for his parents. We can’t help but root for these kids to survive the trauma as the filmmakers make us care about them and the actors have such wonderful chemistry that we yearn for love to triumph.
It’s refreshing to see a film that offers a look at another face of Middle America, where gay and lesbian people are an integral part of society and don’t have to run away in order to find acceptance. And it’s encouraging to see a latino family at the center of the story, and no mention of religious beliefs threatening their harmony or cultural differences posing obstacles between Benny and the very WASP-looking Christopher. After all, it’s not all bad out there and despite having to still make a lot of progress, we can’t deny lots of progress has already been made.
O’Donnell is obviously aware of that and from conversations he had with friends, both gay and straight, he realised people were asking to see more stories about gay characters that are not focused on issues of sexuality. As he was writing the script, the filmmaker was guided by the theme that love between family members trumps all and indeed we witness that kind of love within Benny’s family from the minute they appear on screen. What’s at stake in Akron can’t be even hinted at in order to avoid spoilers and though some will consider it too coincidental, let’s not forget it’s still a movie but the filmmakers handle the material in raw and genuine fashion.
One could argue that the opening sequence, which reveals the twist and provides the audience with dramatic irony until the characters discover the secret, could’ve been left on the cutting room floor. Yet probably the filmmakers wanted to make a point about not trying to focus on the reveal per se but making a film about the consequences and how they affect people’s feelings. And they do a great job with it, treating the delicate topic gracefully rather than in the melodramatic and soapy fashion the same story might’ve been told on a Lifetime TV movie.
The cast complements the filmmakers’ vision with naturalistic and convincing performances that are the heart of the film. With sparse instrumental score, rurally idyllic cinematography and a pondering pacing, Akron is all about the actors and though the film is pervaded with first-timer vibes, it also shows great promise from all the players involved. Their greatest achievement is having made a film that proves how LGBTQ stories can be universal. Let’s hope more people get the memo.