Grade: C

The Shakespearean allusion in the title is by far the cleverest thing about “Food of Love,” a sincere but dramatically conflicted gay coming-of-age tale about a California piano student whose idolization of a concert artist leads to a brief affair. (“The Page Turner,” the title of the David Leavitt novel on which it’s based, isn’t bad either.) So long as the narrative concentrates on Paul (Kevin Bishop), the young keyboard pupil, and Richard Kennington (Paul Rhys), the established recitalist, Ventura Pons’ little film is reasonably well modulated and modestly insightful. Unfortunately, subplots involving Paul’s mother Pamela (Juliet Stevenson)–who first misinterprets Richard’s interest as directed toward her and later goes wild at the thought of her son’s relationship with the older man–and Richard’s suspicious long-time partner Joseph (Allan Corduner) take the picture into strident melodramatic territory. Stevenson and Corduner are both excellent actors, but even they can’t keep their characters sufficiently subtle.

The action begins when Paul is tapped to serve as Richard’s page-turner for a San Francisco concert. Richard takes the boy’s excessive praise as romantic in nature, but before they can connect the exuberant Pamela whisks her son away. Shortly afterward, Pamela’s husband leaves her, and she and Paul go off on a Spanish vacation to forget. When Paul finds that Richard is in town, he approaches the older man and they become involved. As they share time with Pamela, however, she misinterprets Richard’s attention to her; meanwhile Joseph, who’s remained back in New York to nurse his ill dog, badgers Richard to return–which he does, abruptly ending the affair which Paul has begun to take very seriously.

Seguing ahead six months, we find Paul in his first year at Juilliard, intensely unhappy that his studies aren’t going as well as hoped and morosely entering into relationships with older men–an evening with Joseph, a continuing connection with an upstairs neighbor in the same building. When he returns home for a visit, Pamela discovers that he’s gay and assumes wrongly that he’s having an affair with Richard back in New York. After briefly trying to come to terms with the realization by attending a meeting of mothers in similar circumstances, she impulsively go to New York to confront the older man and discuss things with her son. Of course her latest mistaken assumption leads to considerable embarrassment all around.

So long as “Food of Love” sticks to its coming-of-age premise, it’s reasonably effective. Though Bishop sometimes comes across as stilted, he plays off fairly well against Rhys, who’s the very model of the smooth, refined but not entirely happy artist. The two are particularly impressive in the sequence depicting their initial encounter in a Spanish hotel room; what might have been tawdry is rather touching and authentic instead. On the other hand, most of the material dealing with Pamela is overdrawn; it’s all supposed to be comic, of course, but comes across as mostly flat and amateurish. (It’s a serious miscalculation, for example, to have her wear an apron emblazoned with the words “Fruity Kitchen” in one scene.) And while Corduner manages a sometimes striking portrait of a morose older man, the digressions in which he’s involved seem just a tad forced.

If the picture’s handling of its central dramatic situations isn’t always on target, however, it does capture the musical background with considerable aplomb. The clannish, competitive atmosphere of musical rooms and recital halls is well caught, and the rules for success–not unlike those in the film business–are skillfully suggested. Unfortunately, “Food for Love” isn’t nearly as happy in its score. Carles Cases’ string music is soupy and intrusive, emphasizing the soapoperatic tendencies of the script. Like the latter sections of the film itself, it just goes too far.