TLA Releasing,

Joseph Graham

Ben Bonenfant,
Paul Gerrior,
Nick Frangione,
Raphael Barker,
Artem Mishin,
Michael Carlisi,
Carlo D'Amore,
Michael Klinger

Unrated, 95 minutes

Tabla Rosa
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online December, 2010

"I think this place doesn't want me to leave."

I loved this movie. I was expecting Strapped, a new film written and directed by Joseph Graham, to be just another run-of-the mill hustler flick (because, let's face it, queer cinema is saturated with these). It's always a pleasure, while reviewing, to discover the unexpected and Strapped is a terrific character-driven film about a young rent boy who, during one long rainy night of turning tricks, discovers the difference between physical and emotional intimacy. Ben Bonenfant stars as an un-named hustler who is lost in a labyrinth, unable to find his way out of a seedy and maze-like apartment building. To avoid confusion, I will refer to him as "the hustler" even though he will go by many names throughout the film.

We open, ala Hitchcock, with a forward tracking shot through the rain into a window. Much like the prologue of Sir Alfred's Psycho, the camera invites us to be voyeurs. Our anonymous hero, identifying himself as "Alex," tricks with a Russian man during this first scene, It is his john's first time and "Alex" is very gentle, especially when he starts to fuck him, making him feel assured, comfortable and loved. Upon leaving that apartment, he follows several hallways to dead ends and realizes that he is lost. This leads to a series of adventures, each one involving a new trick. Like Leopold Bloom's journey through Nighttown in James Joyce's Ulysses, or Alice's adventures in Wonderland and through the looking glass, each of his encounters leads to a greater understanding of what makes him tick, culminating in a life changing epiphany.

The hustler is a chameleon, not unlike Woody Allen's Zelig, and he blends into each individual environment, becoming whomever his current john wants him to be. It's a survival technique but also one that he is very good at. He is always playing a character, wearing a mask. He transforms throughout the movie, adapting to whomever he is around in order to either accommodate or exploit his client. With the Russian, he becomes a caring teacher. While trying to find the exit, he runs into a flamboyant man named Leon who is convinced the Hustler is an acquaintance named "Eddie." He expertly goes along with the charade, taking on a much queenier persona as he joins a cocaine-fueled party in Leon's apartment.

This film is anything but predictable and there are many surprises along the way. A comical sexual interlude, for example, unexpectedly explodes into violence. The hustler is rescued by Sam, a much older gay man who takes him back to his apartment to tend his wounds. Sam is perhaps in his sixties, though still quite handsome. He forces the young hustler to take a look at himself. Our hero is a confused young man who doesn't identify as gay but likes doing it with guys. He prefers things to be random and anonymous, and he craves adventure. Refusing to be labeled as gay or straight, he says, "Maybe I'm just a dude." Sam counters with "Maybe you're just a tourist." The hustler, calling himself "Jeff" now, tells Sam that he has been unable to find his way out of the building's "maze" of hallways. Sam likens the structure, instead, to a labyrinth. A maze is a trap, he explains, a labyrinth will lead you somewhere at the end of the journey. Our young lad will learn, before all is said and done, that he has been fleeing real, emotional intimacy. Even though he tries to remain a hustler who refuses to kiss, a final trick makes him give in to his fears, transforming him forever in the process.

His encounters mix humor, drama and pathos into a very pleasing stew. There is much to commend in this movie. Strapped is filled with many surprisingly intelligent conversations, as well as some great over-the-top laughs. The hustler allows moments of tenderness (usually cuddling) with his johns after sex. and their post-coital discussions are very realistic. There is a lot of hot sex in this film; none of it is clinically explicit but, if this movie was rated, it would certainly be NC-17. In-between the various episodes, the director exploits the building's claustrophobic corridors. Sconces and overhead lighting fixtures flicker and an EXIT sign goes black. Tracking shots down these hallways invoke the dreamlike atmosphere of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining and one of the characters even references the spooky hotel in the late director's 1980 opus. We are not sure, at first, if the filmmaker is setting up a weird David Lynch film or a Twilight Zone episode, but the results (especially a Creole band performing music in an open doorway) are, at the very least, quite surreal. Graham is a director in command of his craft and Strapped is one of the best photographed American queer indie films this reviewer has seen in some time.

People are usually cautious about letting people see who they really are and so they erect walls to keep others out. The hustler has no problem with the mechanics of sex but he is terrified of letting his guard down and embracing intimacy. Unable to accept who he is, he adopts all these different personas to help him run from the truth. While navigating the labyrinth, he learns something from each tryst When he tells Sam that he never loved a man, Sam finishes the sentence and says "yet!" In many ways our hero is still a boy emotionally, and this may be why this attire (a red, hooded pullover overlapping a dark jacket with stripes sewn on the sleeves) makes him look, at times, like a boy scout. He reconciles "being a man" with being homosexual as he meets many different facets of gayness. There are the young party animals, the closeted homophobe and the elder spokesman imparting his wisdom. In the end, his final transformation comes when he stops transforming.

A few beautiful moments bear mentioning. I loved it when the hustler tells Sam that older men "fuck the best" because "they care." He hugs Sam as if he were a babe in his arms and then, before he leaves, stops and smiles as he looks at a small framed picture of Sam as a hunky, younger bear wearing a tank top and holding a guitar. On a more comical note, the close-ups of his face while he is being fellated, and then rimmed,by a john who insists that he is "straight," are laugh out loud funny.

The acting by all is terrific. Bonenfant, as the hustler, looks a bit like a cross between Keanu Reeves in My Own Private Idaho (another film that is referenced) and Joseph Gordon Levitt. He's young and he's cute and he is bubbling with charisma. His role is an acting tour-de-force as he gets to play someone who is constantly pretending to be someone else (and we are often aware of his fakery) until he finds and embraces his true self. They say that screen acting is all in the eyes, and he has both the eyes and the facial expressions of a natural thespian. The supporting cast is also uniformly good with too many performances to single out, though Paul Gerrior is especially good as the aging activist and Nick Frangione is transcendent as a lonely trick, first encountered at Leon's party, who wants to connect emotionally with the hustler rather than just have mechanical sex with him. Look for Raphael Barker from John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus as another member of Leon's entourage.

Strapped is a great film about sex and emotion and the masks we wear. Graham's script is smart, sharp and sexy. He is a filmmaker to watch and I look forward to his next effort.


Raphael Barker also appears in: