Tuesday 23 March 2021

Dramarama (Jonathan Wysocki, 2020)

Jonathan Wysocki's first feature takes us back to the title period of another directorial debut, Jonah Hill's Mid90s; besides taking place in the same era as Hill's film, Dramarama has a couple of other shared features with Mid90s: both movies are coming-of-age tales set in California.  However, Dramarama diverges from the rather sombre Mid90s in that Wysocki's film, for the most part, is a breezy, cheerful work, albeit one in which the plentiful quips and one-liners often serve to paper over some psychological cracks.  It's to Dramarama's credit that, as a 90s-set film, it doesn't overdo it on the nostalgia front—beyond the sight of some cassette tapes and the prominent use of They Might Be Giants on the soundtrack, there's not too much here to anchor the film to its time.  While each of Dramarama's main characters is more than capable of being infuriating, Wysocki stealthily builds up the story's emotional core to the point that the movie ends on a genuinely moving note.

Dramarama, which plays at BFI Flare until Sunday, sees five high school drama friends meet for one last farewell before they head off to college.  This end-of-an-era gathering takes the form of a fancy dress/murder mystery party held at the home of Rose (Anna Grace Barlow), who has opted to dress up as Dickens' Amelia Havisham.  It's not long before the other guests arrive: Claire (Megan Suri), Oscar (Nico Greetham), Ally (Danielle Kay) and Gene (Nick Pugliese).  Although the evening is intended to be a fun, light-hearted affair for the gang before they go their separate ways, Gene has been thinking long and hard about the occasion, as he plans to use it to come out to his friends.  To say he's nervous at the thought of this is something of an understatement; as it happens, tensions flare among the various members of the group, and the many resentments that have been bubbling away for some time suddenly rise to the surface.  If Gene is to come out as planned, it probably won't be the showstopping moment he feared it would be, given the increasingly fraught nature of the soirée.  

If the group dynamic wasn't sufficiently complicated to begin with, enter JD (Zak Henri), a high school dropout who just happens to be delivering pizzas to Rose's house.  The conceited JD, who is clearly well-read, appears to have the measure of each of the group members, and they all appear to be slightly uneasy in his presence; what's more, JD supplies another potential source of resentment by inviting Gene to another party that is due to take place later on the same evening.  Having helped himself to some alcohol while dismissing Rose's gathering as a kids' party, JD eventually heads back to work with the promise that he'll be back to collect Gene once his shift ends.  JD serves as a formidable agent provocateur, and his fleeting, aggravating presence is seemingly all that the members of the group need in order to start airing their grievances to one another. 

Given Jonathan Wysocki's background in theatre and the fact that his film centres on a drama group, it isn't too surprising to find that Dramarama feels very much like a filmed play, a sense reinforced by the fact that the action unfolds almost exclusively within the four walls of Rose's home.  While set in Wysocki's hometown of Escondido, we see almost nothing of the city, which most of the group appear quite happy to be leaving for pastures new; of the five at the party, only Gene is planning to stick around, which is especially interesting, given that one would assume that his intention to come out would line up with a move away and the start of a new chapter.  It's quite refreshing to see Gene opting to stay at a time when most of his peers are flying the coop, and it demonstrates how he doesn't need a different background in order to be himself.  Of the actors, it's Barlow and Suri who deliver the best performances, with the latter in particular injecting some warmth into her straitlaced, underwritten character, one that the rather snide JD refers to as "puritanical".  Dramarama is a fun if admittedly slight confection, yet its farewell scenes provide moments of real pathos.         

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI