Gay-themed films too often take the standard form of boy-meets-boy and they overcome obstacles to true love, treated comedically or dramatically. It’s the rare picture that can break this mold, and Jon Shear’s uneven but intriguing new effort is one.
“Urbania” is about a morose young Yorker named Charlie (Dan Futterman, looking rather like a younger version of Kevin Pollak) who numbly traverses the area around his apartment, engaging in conversations with friends and people he accidentally meets that almost always have something to do with urban legends of the sort used in the recent series of bad slasher flicks. Shear’s technique is fragmentary and elliptical, utilizing lots of verbal allusions, quick flashbacks and sudden edits to let us know that Charlie is haunted by the remembrance of a former lover, Chris (Matt Keeslar) and trying desperately to come to terms with an overpowering sense of loss and bereavement; and before long it becomes clear that he’s searching for a tattoed fellow named Dean (Samuel Ball). The ending has Charlie coming face-to-face with Dean, who turns out to be a homophobic thug addicted to gay-bashing, and their encounter brings the plot full-circle.
Much of “Urbania,” however, is devoted to the odd, often unsettling time Charlie spends with other fleeting characters: Matt (Josh Hamilton), a friendly bartender; Clara (Barbara Sukowa), a hard-bitten bar patron; Bill, a homeless man who frequents the stoop of Charlie’s building (Lothaire Bluteau); Ron (Gabriel Olds), a would-be actor anxious for a one-night stand; and Chuck and Deedee (Bill Sage and Megan Dodds), the couple that lives upstairs and regularly engages in loud lovemaking. A particularly powerful sequence reunites Charlie with an old friend named Brett (Alan Cumming), who’s ill with AIDs but obviously still devoted to his buddy. The performances are all at least capable, and Cumming’s is truly outstanding.
The overall effect of “Urbania” is dark and subtly hallucinatory, and the atmosphere it creates quite chilling. Occasionally the film school tricks of the director and editors grow a trifle tiresome (too often Charlie sees something strange, turns, and then turns back to find it’s disappeared), and the final cathartic conversation between Charlie and Chris is on the precious side (it probably worked better in the play by Daniel Reitz on which the script is based). But like 1997’s “The Hanging Garden,” it treats gay issues in a refreshingly distinctive way, and for that one can forgive its occasional lapses.