Despite its unfortunate title, the debut feature by Nickolas Perry isn’t about stockcar racing, though driving in that sort of competition is the dream of one of its main characters; instead “Speedway Junky” is a sort of pint-sized “Midnight Cowboy,” set in Las Vegas instead of New York and melding a dose of “The Graduate” into the mix for good measure. Though the picture’s first two acts are extremely old-fashioned–recasting lots of forties cliches into a contemporary gay narrative–the performances are good enough, and the direction sufficiently low-key, to make it modestly intriguing. In the last third, unfortunately, Perry’s script goes completely off track, falling apart in a welter of absurd twists, sentimental drivel and phony uplift. By the close the movie has crashed and burned.
Jesse Bradford, whose career has sputtered badly since his fine turn in Steven Soderbergh’s “King of the Hill” (1993), plays Johnny, a naive army brat who’s run away from home and is making his way to North Carolina from California in hopes of becoming a race car driver. He lands broke and despondent in Las Vegas, where he’s befriended by an angelic male hustler his own age, Eric (Jordan Brower). The doe-eyed interest that Eric shows in Johnny from the moment he spies him sitting disconsolately on a curb is enough to tell us that he’s smitten, but Johnny’s so dense he has no idea of it. Instead he’s nonchalantly drawn into Eric’s circle of friends, which includes a car thief-boozer (Justin Urich), a raver (Brian Stark), a surly Hispanic drug-dealer (Erik Alexander Gavica), a smoothly knowledgeable male prostitute (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), and Veronica (Daryl Hannah), a badly-used older woman who was one of Eric’s mother’s best friends in the past and now acts as a sort of surrogate parent to him. Even though Johnny rejects Eric’s timid advances, the two grow ever closer, and Eric even aims to help his new friend gain the expertise needed to make a few bucks hustling older women, persuading Veronica to introduce him to the joys of sex (shades of Mrs. Robinson). Johnny, in turn, becomes more and more anxious about Eric’s well-being.
Thus far the scenario, despite sporadic hokiness, remains reasonably interesting because it doesn’t push too hard: Perry helps by keeping the piece a bit rough around the edges and not overplaying Eric’s unrequited infatuation (except for inserts of the boy’s distraught reaction at the prospect of Johnny and Veronica getting it on). The sexual elements, moreover, are handled very discreetly–especially the ones with homosexual overtones: it’s typical that the only scene that’s at all explicit is the interlude between Johnny and Veronica, with everything else either played for laughs or kept offscreen. One can easily envision how a sensitive, understated conclusion could have ended things on a satisfying note. Unhappily, Perry chooses an entirely different path. He drags in a chain of over-the-top melodramatics involving a stolen stash of drugs and cash, a character threatened by his creditors, a gunfight, a death scene that’s as mawkish as anything in “Camille,” and a bit of mush involving a dead pal’s lucky coin. As if all that weren’t enough, he adds a brain-freezing epilogue showing that dreams can come true–even though one must needs carry old losses in his heart (sob!). By the time the credits roll, the picture has traded the chance for a moving close for a ludicrous finale that invites snorts of derisive laughter. The weepy histrionics might have come out of one of Fanny Hurst’s old potboilers (or the glossy flicks made from them) if they didn’t involve two boys.
That’s too bad, because en route to the soggy denouement “Speedway Junky” has had its good points. Perry achieves some moments of dark humor (one featuring Patsy Kensit and another with Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, for example), and manages to inject some sweetness into the relationship between Johnny and Eric. Bradford, though his character’s lack of perception is eventually dumbfounding, is periodically affecting, as is Brower, even if he’s forced to gaze at his friend longingly much too often. Hannah, apart from an poor last scene, gives a performance of surprising depth and conviction. (Jonathan Taylor Thomas, by contrast, is so coarsely smarmy that he might as well have the word “Villain” emblazoned on his silk shirt.)
As far as films with gay themes go, “Speedway Junky” is, for two-thirds of its running time, more unpredictable and restrained than most–though not as credible or realistic as one might hope. (At least it’s not the typical “coming-out” story, which is the usual route.) The final third, though, is so misguided that it pretty much cancels out the virtues of the earlier footage. By the end, “junk” has definitely become the operative word.