Review: “Tennessee Queer”

The more things change, the more they stay the same. I’ve heard and used this phrase more times than I care to count, but, much like its meaning, it never gets tired despite the more it’s used. And yet, the lessons that can be learned from it often go in one ear and out the other. Repeating a phrase over and over to people who are constantly repeating the same actions over generations makes me ask; Is an uphill battle worth fighting?

With a sense of humanity and an optimistic radiance, Tennessee Queer says yes.

The strong willed aspect is best expressed through the character of Jason Potts. He’s from a town in Tennessee called Smyth, where high schoolers have a decades old ritual called “Smear the Queer”. It’s a place he has since moved on from, living now in New York with his loving boyfriend. Oh, Jason is gay, by the way. This fact is never presented in an over the top fashion or outrageously stereotypical manner — it’s all very casual and, dare I offend someone, normal. Is sexual preference blindness a thing?

During a visit home, he’s confronted with a family intervention, moderated by a church pastor. I was kinda programmed to expect prejudice to appear here, but that gets subverted quickly; the family just wants Jason to move back to town. They support and love him? Yes. Twice my expectations of cliches were squashed in favor of something much richer. The family tries to impress upon Jason how the town has changed, but they do so with some caution, which he catches on to. Before heading back to New York, Jason proposes to the city council a gay pride parade, mostly in jest and to mess with their heads. To his surprise, the parade is a go, and he’s now in charge. What felt like a backfired burden at first becomes a chance to provide the youth of his hometown an example of courage, and to show the people of Smyth that they’ve been worried over nothing.

On the flipside, we have the main antagonist, an opportunistic conservative councilman who once bullied Jason (and who I wrongly suspected had unrequited feelings for him). He is, more or less, a bumbling foil for our fingers to point at. An amalgamation of all the regressive and despicably unintelligent politicians that constantly get voted into office. Is he a victim of his environment, merely trying to, in his mind, protect the soul of his town? Is he a person we can feel for? It certainly doesn’t seem so.

This councilman only exists to have awkward moments at gay bars and be made fun of. It’s part deserved and part disappointing. We need to take the piss out of this kind of behavior, sure, but can’t we do so in a less cartoonish way? On second thought, CAN we do so in a less cartoonish way? Is there a false equivalency I’m trying to draw? No matter — while he represents the dying breed of old thought, the parade protesters in this movie represent the heart underneath the hate; the possibility of open minds, shown in a beautiful climax.

Movies like Tennessee Queer are hard to come by. It’s a story that is confident in its stance, knows what’s right and understands that baby steps can be giant leaps forward. Sure, change is slow, but it happens all the same. More and more.

4 / 5 *s

Originally published at on February 10, 2014.

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