Review by Fergus Henderson.
When we first meet recently divorced Dave Hopper (Stephen Shane Martin), a psychology lecturer at a Christian college, he is a void of passion and energy. He is practically begging for something to kick-start the journey of self-reflection he seems, silently, to need.
Soon enough he is challenged by one of his students, Nate, who asks him why God hates gay people. Dave responds that homosexuality is a choice, and the wrong one at that, but he doesn’t seem too convinced, and tosses it out with the upward inflection of someone asserting something they have barely even thought about. This question, “the issue of your generation” as Dave sees it, forms the crux of dramedy At The End Of The Day, writer/director Kevin O’Brien’s debut feature length film.
Dave’s appropriately villainous boss, dean Gordon Woodman (Tom Nowicki) seems to sense this inciting incident, and sends him to an LGBTQI support group which intends to bid on property that Woodman has plans for. They hope to use it to as a homeless shelter for LGBTQI kids. Woodman simply wants to expand his religious franchise.
Dave is tasked with infiltrating and sabotaging their fund raising, lying about being gay in order to win the group’s trust. Eventually he will have his heart and mind changed by the ideas he must consider, and the sheer force of love and goodwill he finds in this previously alien community. This goodness, he will come to realise, is conspicuously lacking in his own community. How long will he be able to keep up his charade?
O’Brien has crafted a film which probes the hypocrisies and double standards of the church, one which interrogates the real world outcomes of its judgements on the LGBTQI community. It is a calm film, which floats through its run time on a narrative thread that, whilst dramatic, is never played for melodrama.
It is thanks in part to O’Brien’s script that the film never becomes overtly preachy, but is rather gently insistent on what it is saying, gathering cumulative force by slowly upping the ante as it progresses. The more we learn about the characters, the more the emotional stakes increase. Characters that appear first at the periphery slowly make their way into the story’s centre, their stories and experiences adding weight as they emerge.
This gentle quality is perhaps due to writer O’Brien’s own conservative Christian upbringing. The film seems to address people on that side of the political fence, in a refreshingly understated way. It assumes an intelligence and sensitivity in this more conservative audience, and if one doubts its genuine empathy at the offset, by the end we are sure that it has been made by someone who has become fully aware of what it is to be compassionate.
There are still a few moments in which this background hampers the script, certain scenes feeling very much like they are written in order to explain gayness to an unfamiliar audience. Luckily it largely avoids the stereotyping one might fear.
There is a tangible earnestness to how the film makes its case. In one of its most transparent moments it collects a group of people from the LGBTQI community and presents them as talking heads addressing the camera with tales of cruelty from their religious families. O’Brien seems to be addressing similarly conservative people with the fervour of someone who has finally seen the truth, asking them if they can see it too.
It is certainly a noble film with an undeniably righteous message of inclusion and acceptance, but is not a perfectly made film. In the macro it finds a compelling central tension, develops at a fast and entertaining pace, and lands at a happy resolution. Where it falls down is in its tone.
On a scene to scene basis there are broad comedic strokes that do not land. On the surface the film knows which beats to hit, and then curiously does not hit them, leaving moments of dead air. It makes jokes about how scarves are ‘gay’ and features a set piece involving an erotic car wash. The humour is relatively lightweight throughout, never veering too close to satire (lest it become a more polemical film?)
It is much more compelling, and the actors seem more comfortable, when it is solely dramatic. At times it occupies a liminal space with scenes transitioning from drama to comedy somewhat awkwardly, the film and cast appearing eager to return once more to the drama.
Similarly the cinematography, largely workmanlike and understated, finds itself a little lost in these moments, and even with the soundtrack hitting the prerequisite emotional notes you still feel momentarily adrift, waiting for the film to find its footing again.
At The End Of The Day is at its strongest when it is unabashedly serious. It features a lively and realistic ensemble cast who are devoted to the plot and to their characters and who have an easy, believable chemistry. Stand outs include Danielle Sagona as Alyssa, the head of the group who harbours painful secrets, and Chris Cavalier as troubled student Nate. Both actors shoulder the film’s weightiest moments. Tom Nowicki plays his thankless role as villain Woodward with cackling zest.
Most interesting of all is lead actor Stephen Shane Martin, who is somehow both deflated and confident, nonchalant yet deeply invested in his own spiritual awakening. When he does speak he is deeply unsure of himself and what he thinks. Martin is necessarily quiet so that he can be taught
He is really a proxy for the audience that At The End Of The Day will speak to most, those that might need to be reminded of the importance of love and understanding, and of questioning their beliefs if they stand in love’s way. Technical and tonal issues aside, this is a positive film, with a message that deserves to be heard by its audience. It will make its own small change, for the better.
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