‘National Anthem’ Review: Luke Gilford’s Queer Rodeo Coming-of-Age Story Is a Promising Debut | SXSW 2023
To be perfectly honest, before watching National Anthem I was incredibly unfamiliar with gay rodeos and the International Gay Rodeo Association. I’ve never really been a fan of rodeos in general or ever been to one. For me, the main selling point of this film was Charlie Plummer. Despite only being 23 years old, Plummer has already built a strong career and has done a pretty intense job with picking interesting projects (well, Moonshot aside), from playing a schizophrenic teen in the criminally underrated Words on the Bathroom Walls to playing the quirky Dylan in the equally underappreciated teen body horror comedy Spontaneous, Plummer seems to take roles that interest him instead of ones that many would seek as an easier route. That brings us to the feature directorial debut of Luke Gilford, the acclaimed photographer responsible for the monograph National Anthem America’s Queer Rodeo and who has directed numerous music videos including for artists like Troye Sivan and Kesha. So going into this film I already figured it had two things going in its favor and that was its star and that aesthetically this was likely to be a pretty good-looking film.
National Anthem follows Dylan (Plummer), a 21-year-old construction worker who lives with his alcoholic mother Fiona (Robyn Lively), and his precocious younger brother Cassidy (Joey DeLeon). His father is long out of the picture having walked out when Dylan was still very young, which now makes Dylan the primary caregiver for his family, having to take on additional odd jobs. One fateful day, his colleague Pepe (Rene Rosado) offers him a gig helping out at House of Splendor, a homestead for queer rodeo performers. While initially shy about this lifestyle he’s unfamiliar with, he quickly develops a crush on Sky (Eve Lindley), a bubbly young trans woman who is a skilled barrel racer. As par for the course in coming-of-age films, Dylan begins to discover who he really is, experimenting sexually, physically, and mentally, falling in love, and above all else finding a true sense of belonging that he’s never had before.
The overall plot of National Anthem is nothing too new outside its setting, we’ve seen these tales of self-discovery time and time again. The story structure is quite loose and flows at its own pace never feeling rushed but never too slow, letting Dylan’s journey play out much more organically. There are some moments early on in the film that come across as self-indulgent and don’t necessarily add too much additional context, visually these scenes are extremely well captured, but at the same time, it doesn’t feel needed to see a close-up of Dylan masturbating while envisioning Sky dancing in the desert.
One of the biggest standouts in National Anthem is Katelin Arizmendi‘s cinematography, the film, at times has a grainy vintage aesthetic that meshes perfectly with the New Mexico settings. Even at the film’s weaker moments, it still manages to always be visually interesting, from the drag shows to a rural department store, and of course the deserts right outside of House of Splendor, the effort put into the film is abundantly clear. In a way, it feels like a Chloé Zhao film, namely The Rider and Nomadland, in how it makes even the simplest locations look breathtaking. Whatever Gilford decides to do as his next film, one can hope he brings alongside Arizmendi as they make for the perfect match.
Plummer turns in another impressive performance as Dylan. Throughout the film, the character is still trying to find himself, which results in his character feeling a bit more flat compared to his co-stars. Lindley’s character at times feels a tad underwritten, outside a handful of lines about her upbringing and her complex relationship with Pepe, which becomes a point of confusion for Dylan that ultimately leads to nothing. Despite the contrivances with her character, Lindley still carries a lot of charisma in her performance. It’s easy to see why Dylan is quick to fall for her, and her quieter moments including a scene where she applies blue eyeliner to Dylan are among the best in the film. Plummer and Lindley have such a natural chemistry with each other, and they shine the brightest whenever they are on-screen together.
The biggest standout of the cast, however, is Mason Alexander Park as Carrie, a non-binary drag queen who grew up in a strict conservative family. Park has such an electric screen presence and perfectly bounces off of all their costars. Park really expands the role of Carrie beyond just what the script gave them and leaves the biggest impression once the credits roll. Rosado’s role as Pepe feels undercooked, while the performance is still serviceable, the subplots that he was given do him dirty, especially with a misunderstanding between him and Dylan that occurs late in the film.
Gilford has a lot of talent as a director, and while the film’s screenplay is lackluster, the direction that truly elevates the film to another level. Gilford has a way to make the film feel intimate and personal, nothing is ever exaggerated or melodramatic, even with some of the more clichéd elements of the movie. While there are moments that overstay their welcome or feel too drawn out, it also compliments well with the movie’s affectionate and grounded tone. As a debut film, Gilford’s work shows so much potential for future projects, even if the subject matter isn’t of interest, you can’t help but keep your eyes glued to the screen.
National Anthem may at times feel a bit too simple, but the craftsmanship and the core performances are enough to make it worth a watch. It occasionally borders between overly sentimental, self-indulgent, and authentic. Much like its main character, the film is trying to find itself as it moves along, and sometimes that works for the movie’s benefit, other times it becomes almost a hodgepodge of different of ideas. Despite all of this, it never stops being interesting. There are too many queer films that try to make a big deal out of everything, and that makes National Anthem feel refreshing in how it portrays everybody as people first instead of walking stereotypes.