Less than three weeks into 2014, there’s an early front-runner for the most shameful MPAA rating of the year: the scarlet “R” slapped on the sweet, funny teen comedy G.B.F. Dumb MPAA double-standards are old hat by this point, but rarely is the organization’s puritanical rationale this transparent. G.B.F. contains no nudity and no strong language, and its sexual content doesn’t stretch much beyond the occasional crotch-grab and double-entendre. There’s little to distinguish Darren Stein’s high-school romp from the likes of Mean Girls except for one inescapable fact: The “G” in the title stands for “Gay.”
Surprised? Don’t be. The motion-picture industry has demonstrated time and again that it can only trust gay people when they’re flamboyant, sexually non-threatening sidekicks, not complex leads with libidos of their own. Hence the “gay best friend” trope (used in, among other films, Mean Girls), which has now begot the cheeky, self-aware G.B.F., a coming-of-age film made by people who are all too aware of what it means to be gay in the movies. In George Northy’s clever script, the newly outed Tanner (Michael Willett) discovers he’s suddenly the most in-demand kid in school, as a trio of popular girls fight over who gets to claim him as their own accessory. Never mind that he’s an introvert, doesn’t know much about fashion, and would rather read comic books than light up a room with fabulousness.
This may all sound like a sociology thesis, perhaps something along the lines of “Gay Best Friends: The De-Sexualization And Objectification Of Queer Identity In Popular Culture.” And it basically is. But it’s an entertaining, quietly perceptive thesis, where even the homophobic Mormon dunderheads (including Evanna Lynch, better known as Luna Lovegood) feel like real people. And it’s also funny even when it’s obvious, as when one of the girls innocently remarks that her new prize “doesn’t even sound like the ones on Bravo.” Northy’s script sometimes ventures too far into cartoon territory, but its best aspect is the way it turns high-school groupthink on its head: The issue isn’t that the first openly gay kid in class struggles to find acceptance from his peers, but that they accept him in all the wrong ways.
Tanner isn’t out through any choice of his own. His de-closeting is a screwball accident involving a Grindr-like hookup app, a Gay/Straight Alliance chapter desperate to balance its ranks, and his own glitter-obsessed best friend Brent (Paul Iacono), who wanted the school’s gay-friendly glory all to himself. Brent is so trendy, in fact, that he decides not to come out once Tanner beats him: “It’d be pathetic, like I’m copying you,” he says, likening his sexuality to a fashion statement. Meanwhile, three not-quite-mean girls—a cheerleader, a theater star, and a chaste but daft Mormon princess—shower undue love and affection upon Tanner, each vying for his endorsement for prom queen.
There are many moments when the dialogue strains too hard to be hip, and when the humor goes too broad. Shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Glee have rendered the aggressive, obviously closeted jock a cliché by now, and yet he pops up here. Certainly Stein could have done more to utilize the talents of the most recognizable people in his cast—Natasha Lyonne, Horatio Sanz, and Megan Mullally pop up around the perimeter without much fanfare, though Mullally has a good moment narrating a racy scene from Brokeback Mountain. But it’s hard to complain when every scene in G.B.F. seems to unearth a new, pleasant surprise. Like when the drama queen, who is black, appeals to Tanner by showing him how every past prom king and queen has been white and straight, and makes an entirely reasonable pitch for some fresh royalty. Or when the cheerleader’s efforts to organize an LGBT-inclusive alternate prom turn into another vanity exercise. Or Willett’s sincere, stammer-filled performance: He handles his big coming-out moment with just the right note of hesitation, where it’s clear his uncertainty isn’t about his identity, but his future.
And his unease seems more than justified than the R rating for a film that many teenagers would certainly benefit from seeing. When the MPAA acts this loony around movies with gay protagonists, what’s the conclusion to draw? Much like Lynch’s snarling villain, the organization seems secretly afraid of catching what Tanner has.