Quite understandably, after a couple of years many child actors seem eager to reinvent themselves as more daring, smart and interesting than their television personalities allow them to be. Most famously, we saw it when Jessica Biel blew up her whole saint-like image on the family-oriented drama 7th Heaven, putting her character through a period of alienation from her family, a pregnancy and a failed marriage, while Biel herself did a sexed-up photo shoot for Gear Magazine. If not immediately comparable, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s movie career has taken a similar turn, from his teenage stint on 3rd Rock From The Sun, to playing a molested hustler in Gregg Araki’s (brilliant) Mysterious Skin (2004). I’m not sure to what extent it’s it would be fair to compare the two, as it seems like Gordon-Levitt’s move was much better planned (Biel now says she regrets does the Gear shoot), but both of them speak to how young actors can feel strained by the way they were initially presented to the public.
Which brings us – yet again – to Jonathan Taylor Thomas, who with the gay-themed one-two punch of Speedway Junky (1999) and Common Ground (2000), tried to create some space between himself and family-oriented sitcom Home Improvement. In a way it’s a little frustrating to think that for someone to play a couple of gay roles still amounts to something of a teenage rebellion (or a lethal injection to his commercial viability), but no matter how you spin it, it actually was a quite bold move on his part. As Denis Hensley of American gaymag The Advocate chronicled in in his now-famous interview with JTT back in 2000, it set off a flurry of rumours of the young actor’s suspected gayness. I’ve only seen Speedway, and while it’s not flawless by any means, it must have been a welcome opportunity for many of the involved people to play with their public images.
Contrary to what you might expect from the media attention however, JTT’s bisexual Steve character doesn’t have all that much screen time in Speedway Junky. He is the catalyst of what eventually turns out to be the dramatic turning point of the movie, but the main reason why he still demands our attention, is because JTT seems to cherish the chance to project something totally at odds with how we’re used to see him. Ideally, every movie should be considered entirely on its own artistic terms, without regard to things outside of the movie itself. However, when I try to decide what I think about Speedway, I have to take my own previous perception of JTT into account. Thus, while Steve is not a particularly interesting character, he is made interesting by the way JTT uses him to play with the public perception of himself. And, I almost forgot: His self-concious swagger actually is surprisingly sexy.
Instead, the movie’s main intrigue is the unlikely friendship between Johnny (Jesse Bradford) and Eric (Jordan Brower), the gay hustler who falls in love with him. Johnny, a young man trying to gather the cash to go to North Carolina and pursue his dream to be a race car driver, initially feels intimidated by Eric, but slowly they come to trust each other. When it took a long time for me to actually care about them, that’s because I think Bradford’s Johnny is not all that likeable. I simply had trouble understanding why Eric would fall for him. His rebel without a cause shtick seemed a little too self-absorbed, and thus Eric selfness also became a source of frustration. However, while never exactly subtle, over the course of the movie the personal bond and tensions between them becomes easier to accept. Where Bradford initially struggles to make Johnny’s vulnerability seem anything other than whiny, Brower’s Eric is far more interesting. And that’s not just something I say because Brower is such a beautiful guy, or because his character is gay, though both are true.
Still, it could be that Speedway Junky requires a certain suspension of disbelief to be truly engaging. Just when it almost had me hooked, it served up an ending so laced with cliches and sentimental predictability that I left it feeling disappointed. As I believe I’ve said before, I’ve got absolutely nothing against sentimentality or tear-jerkery (if that’s a word), so long as it serves to make us feel closer to the characters. Here however, it threathens to undercut what has come before, by making it all seem like preparation for a thinly veiled plea for our tears.
So which perspective wins; the one where we view it through the lens of young actors trying to free themselves of the constraints of Hollywood conventions, or the second perspective, where we judge the movie solely on its own merits? Because I simply don’t want to be too harsh on a movie that earnestly tries to say something important about friendship and the pursuit of personal dreams, I’ll suggest to apply them both. What you end up with actually is quite essiential to film as an art form (although this should by no means be read as if Speedway Junky is an ‘art film’ or as representiong something quintessential to film-making), namely that this story had to be told in the form of a movie, with its ability to visualize and paper over the shortcomings of the story. And just to be perfectly clear, I mean that as a compliment to film. I’m not arguing that if you’ve nothing interesting to say, get it on camera and call it a movie. I mean that film is the ideal medium through which to tell stories that would otherwise be rendered too simple or sketchy. With that said, maybe the outside angle is the most useful after all?