Jonathon Wysocki’s debut Dramarama is a charming portrait of the sound and fury of queer middle-class teendom.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Reeling Chicago International LGBTQ+ Film Festival.)
High school is dramatic on its own. But speaking from experience, when that drama can be expressed with Shakespearean, Brontëan, and/or Chekovian flair, things tend to get a bit extra. Writer/director Jonathon Wysocki’s debut feature, Dramarama, captures this sound and fury perfectly as he takes us back to high school for one last hurrah after graduation.
Following a clever montage putting us in the heart of 1990s evangelical California, we meet Gene (Nick Pugliese) and his friends Ally (Danielle Kay), Claire (Megan Suri), Oscar (Nico Greetham), and Rose (Anna Grace Barlow). They’re having one final 19th-century murder mystery party before their paths part. From the start, Gene seems more reserved than usual. We know he’s questioning things, trying to understand his insecurities and “differences.” When JD (Zak Henri), the rebel modernist pizza delivery man, interrupts the game, everyone’s insecurities float to the surface. As childhood play falls away to adult seriousness, these dynamics test their faith and friendships. The Scooby Gang must decide to grow together or grow apart.
Right away, the cast’s group dynamics are striking. Playing theater kids means there’s a lot that has to be handled. It’s easy to make them incomprehensible because they become all performance and no substance. This cast starts out that way, but as everything unwinds, we can see the control and craft each performer adds to the equation. The most striking thing about Wysocki’s piece is its irresolution: its teens are on the precipice of huge change, but they aren’t going through it yet. Dramarama mines a charming tale out of that potential, and the unraveling of the evening reveals much left unsaid even after some uncomfortable topics are brought to light.
But that’s where the film succeeds. To put it kindly, dealing with teen faith and sexuality is fraught, especially today. In media, these stories can turn into a minefield of moralisms, where an adult hand oppresses the teenaged characters it writes. Dramarama isn’t like that at all, largely because Wysocki allows both these issues to be part of an ongoing journey. The language of faith speaks for many other things, not least of which the way the group codes their feelings to one another. As we get to know their dynamics and see their complex relationships to faith, the characters feel less and less naive. These characters choose faith and religiosity; it’s not blind submission, nor is it a finite opinion.
Even so, Dramarama isn’t free from some accusations of superficiality, especially given the middle-class suburban setting. Some of the script’s arguments feel a little juvenile, and JD is often more of a source of conflict than a real person anyone would be interested in. But they’re jumping-off points to chart greater depths; the evening gets the ball rolling. We’re nowhere near the kind of milquetoast coming-out story we’ve come to expect from previous depictions of queer middle-class teendom, and its themes and issues aren’t mutually exclusive.
We so often want teens to have it all figured out. They should know what they want to be, who they are, and what they stand for when they leave high school. Dramarama shows us that’s not how it actually is. The ending of high school and being a young adult is only the beginning. It’s okay to not have minds made up. By leaving the questions of queerness and spirituality open and unresolved, Wysocki and his cast create a relatable, charming picture about the excitement of new beginnings.