Divos!

***

Reviewed by: Jane Fae

Divos!
"An all-round fun film to watch."

Divos! is camp. As camp, my gran might have put it, as a nine bob bit, which is the currency we used to use in the UK before we decimalised and converted to queer.0. We’ll get back to that.

The story revolves round a familiar basic narrative: a 'modern-day gender-bending retelling,' its original tagline claims, of All About Eve. We’ll get back to that, too.

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Ricky Redmond (Matt Steele) is a star: he sings, he dances, he acts. Like every star he has his flaws: a massive sense of ego, a disdain for lesser mortals not as talented, and a massive sense of insecurity, fuelled by personal circumstances. He is, as the title suggests, a 'divo', a male diva.

A confidante puts it precisely: “Every time you are on stage the crowd falls in love with you and that’s so strange because normally they hate you.”

Yet despite his gifts, he is the perpetual underdog. His mother is supportive, but the death of his father means times are hard. His road to success lies through winning a place to a top notch Drama Academy. But without the money for the not insignificant fees – $50,000 a year – he just has to win a scholarship.

So far so ordinary. This is the arc of every star-is-born film since Singin' In The Rain, and in that sense not so much All About Eve. The unknown, the ingénue, waiting, hoping desperately for that one big break. But like Lina in Singin' In The Rain, Josh’s road to success is not without obstacle.

In this instance, obstacle takes the form of baseball jock Josh 'the Chopper' Kelly (Timothy Brundidge). Likewise top of his game, Josh’s road to stardom is inevitable. A sports scholarship beckons. His life will be one golden celebration of his pitching skills, with an academic degree thrown in as so much icing on the cake.

And unlike Ricky, Josh is born to privilege: a nice, comfortably-off, conventional upbringing, supervised by a pair of equally comfortable, conventional parents.

All that is thrown up in the air when Josh’s is injured while playing. His role as golden boy of baseball is no longer guaranteed. So, at a loose end, he auditions for the end of term musical and – quelle surprise! – it turns out he has some talent for this sort of thing.

To begin with, Ricky is supportive. In a show of unusual generosity, he introduces Josh to the history and traditions of opera and musicals. Even after the director decides to make Josh and Ricky joint leads, each playing just one night in the production, he swallows his pride and makes time out to teach Josh the tricks of the trade.

Then it all turns sour, as Josh is bitten by the acting bug and turns all his competitive energies toward 'winning' on the stage, and driving Ricky out. There are dirty tricks, hissy fits, and a denouement that is predictable yet no less satisfying for all that.

All told, this is a story we’ve seen a dozen times before in as many different varieties. What marks it out, at least initially, is that campness, which cannot be ignored. Not least as director Ryan Patrick Bartley owns, in a red carpet interview, he always had a desire to do a camp project “in the style of John Waters or The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

And when he got the script from writer (and star of the film) Matt Steele, he saw his chance. Is 'camp', though, enough of a justification for 'campness': or does it, pace all those awful Seventies sitcoms where gay identity was first allowed onto the small screen, actually scream 'gay cringe'? A playing lip service to dramatic tropes which may have been reclaimed within the gay and queer scene but outside of that remains problematic and a focal point for wider homophobia?

I am, sadly, no longer 18: not by a long way! So I cannot tell whether the behaviour of Ricky and his ensemble would be tolerated, even today, in an average US high school. It feels inevitable that someone would take him round the back of the bike sheds (do they even have bike sheds in the US?) and smash his face in.

Would a baseball jock so easily cross over from the hyper-masculinity of sports culture to embrace his new 'divo' self? I do not know; am glad that the film avoided many 'obvious' plot lines, centring on Josh’s embarrassment at being associated with gay and 'gender-bending' guys, because I am sure that little more than a decade or so back this is the direction it would have taken.

I loved not just the stars, but supporting cast as well, who bring an inspiring enthusiasm and energy to their roles, making this an all-round fun film to watch. I loved, too, the extensive use of fourth wall breaks that simultaneously entertain and develop our understanding of Ricky and Josh. And a special mention to Danni Woodson, making much of a small role as Michelle, the psychotic props Mistress.

Still, I am left with a certain unease. Gaysploitation? Queersploitation? Is either of those even a thing? (Editor’s note: they are now).

What, too, of that gender-bending thing? It was there in the initial PR, but dropped since. Perhaps it was just a matter of accuracy: because despite the clear desire to follow Rocky Horror, this film does not play overmuch with gender. Yes, one character – Mitchell (Chris Schermerhorn) – does bend it more than a little. Still, one cannot help but wonder if this was not result of a casting decision to make sure the ensemble contained a gallimaufry of queer types.

Reviewed on: 15 Jul 2020
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Divos! packshot
Teenage egos collide when a self-proclaimed "Broadway Legend in the Making" is forced to share the spotlight with the school's star athlete in the high school musical.

Director: Ryan Patrick Bartley

Writer: Matt Steele

Starring: Matt Steele, Timothy Brundidge, Nicole Sullivan, Jayson Bernard, Jason Stuart, Marissa Jaret Winokur, Jake Busey, Luis Avila, Julia Boyd

Year: 2020

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: US

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