Queer Classics: “Latter Days”
The independent queer romance shows that devout religious faith and queer sexuality can coexist.
Latter Days is actually one of the films that motivated us to start this podcast and this publication. There’s an emotional sweetness and authenticity to this film that is very rare in queer cinema, and it’s very refreshing to see a gay story that doesn’t end in tragedy or trauma but is instead a thoughtful, if at times narratively clumsy, exploration of the fraught relationship between faith and sexuality.
The film focuses primarily on two characters: Aaron (Steve Sandvoss), a devout Mormon who comes to Los Angeles on his mission and Christian (Wes Ramsey), an unrepentant party boy who spends his days bouncing from one sexual conquest to another. Of course, the two of them meet and begin to fall in love with one another. After many setbacks, which include Aaron’s attempt at suicide and a subsequent stay at a gay conversion clinic — which leads to Christian mistakenly believing that he’s been responsible for the death of the only man he’s ever loved — they finally end up together.
The casting in this film is absolutely spot-on. With his all-American boy good looks, Steve Sandvoss manages to capture the combined innocence and sensuality that are key hallmarks of Aaron’s personality, just as Wes Ramsey manages to capture the snarky and sexual allure of Christian. The two have some amazing chemistry, and the sex scene that the two share in an airport hotel is one of the finest I’ve seen in a queer film, and it’s clear that, whatever the sexuality of the actors themselves, they felt some extraordinary chemistry on-screen.
The romance in this film is very much predicated on an opposites attract sort of dynamism, for while Aaron is devout almost to the point of absolute innocence, Christian is jaded and bitter, and he attempts to cover up his own emotional trauma by leaning into his slutty persona. Fortunately, the film doesn’t let either of them get away with the moral high ground. While it doesn’t dismiss or sneer at Aaron’s faith, it does allow us to see the ways in which it sometimes blinds him to the truths of the human heart, just as Christian’s cynicism keeps him from being able to truly share his vulnerability with others.
And it is precisely in its exploration of faith that Latter Days really sets itself apart. It would have been very easy for the film to just outright dismiss Aaron’s Mormonism, to end with him walking away from the religion that has already turned its back on him. That’s not what happens, however. Instead, Aaron keeps hold of his faith but rejects those who would use it as a weapon, as when he condemns the elders who have excommunicated him (one of whom is his own father).
For make no mistake, the film makes it quite clear that it’s not religion itself that is the problem when it comes to the conflict between faith and sexuality; instead, it’s the people who would wield it as a shield to cover their own biases. Perhaps no character embodies this fraught situation more than Aaron’s mother Gladys, who tearfully tells her son that God could forgive him for what he has done (in having sex with another man) but He could never forgive someone for being homosexual. She simply can’t see a way of accepting her son for who he is rather than separating his sexuality from his identity (a not uncommon trick among many people of faith when it comes to their queer children). Again, it would have been easy for Latter Days to paint her as nothing more than a religious bigot, but Place’s skill as an actress allows us to see the conflicted humanity at the heart of her character, particularly when she has a chance of heart and tries to tell Christian that Aaron is still alive.
Indeed, a key part of the appeal of this film comes from its supporting cast, particularly Jacqueline Bisset and Mary Kay Place, each of whom represents something different. While Bisset’s Lila is the voice of compassion and acceptance, offering a sanctuary to the queer boys that come her way, Mary Kay Place’s Gladys is a loving mother whose adherence to her faith cannot allow her to accept him for whom he is. While the film does give her a bit of redemption in the moment mentioned above, the fact remains that she has turned her back on her son, and the fact that she doesn’t get a chance to reconcile with him, suggests that there is, in fact, a price to pay for blind adherence to faith.
However, there’s no denying that the romance between Christian and Aaron remains the heart of this film. There’s so much to love about it, but one scene stands out. As the story reaches its conclusion, Christian has returned to Los Angeles, convinced that his beloved has taken his own life. Aaron, having endured the horrors of a gay conversion camp, also makes his way back to LA, hoping to find shelter at Lila’s restaurant. She, of course, welcomes him with open arms, and as the two of them sit at the bar, Christian comes out of the kitchen and, stricken by the sight of a man he thought dead, sends it crashing to the floor. The look of blasted incredulity on both of their faces strikes like a thunderbolt and, no matter how many times I watch the film, it never fails to move me to tears.
Latter Days is very much a product of the mid-2000s, which was something of a golden age for independent queer film. There are a few hiccups when it comes to the narrative — side plots that don’t get a lot of resolution, characters whose arc isn’t fully developed — but none of those distract from the fundamental goodness and optimism at its heart. It’s a film that is surprisingly profound in its exploration of the ways that queer love and devout religious faith can coexist and, as such, it deserves to be hailed as a queer classic.