“I didn’t even know it was a possibility.”
That is the answer Dylan (Charlie Plummer) gives Carrie (Mason Alexander Park) when they ask about his interest in drag performance. It strikes at the core of National Anthem, Luke Gilford’s splendid directorial debut about a young, adrift construction worker who works at House of Splendor, a homestead for LGBTQ ranchers and rodeo performers. Initially just a job to help him escape New Mexico, Dylan finds more than he ever imagined. A joyous community welcomes him with a warm smile and an occasional knowing wink. He explores his gender and sexual identities in historically conservative and masculine-coded spaces. He also falls in love with Sky (Eve Lindley), an enchanting trans rancher in a relationship with the owner Pepe (Rene Rosado).
The first thing you notice about National Anthem is what it refuses to be: about queer pain and trauma. There are opportunities for it present in the script. Dylan’s encounter with the ranchers at a store, away from the homestead’s safety, would normally be the perfect scenario for bigoted confrontations. The dynamic between Dylan, Sky, and Pepe is another perfect playground for melodramatic proclamations and outbursts. Gilford doesn’t hide from the inherent tension, conveying it in an occasional passerby’s look or an off-camera argument. However, he rejects the stereotypical and well-trodden for profound and less exploitative paths grounded in the characters’ search for authenticity.
Gilford’s preferred paths are richer. Without the narrative burden of bigotry, the film focuses on Dylan’s tentative but open responses to the ranchers’ overtures. It allows Dylan and Sky’s connection to develop beyond enigmatic attraction into a genuine, mutual desire to support their growth. Gilford uses their romance and love triangle to explore the ecstasies and messiness of polyamorous relationships without judgment or violence. Gilford also avoids limiting Dylan’s involvement in the homestead to his romantic life. Dylan forms a potent bond with Carrie, a non-binary drag performer who encourages and keeps him honest about Sky. Their friendship gives Dylan the confidence to perform in drag for the first time, an extension of his experimentation with makeup and a subtle compliment to his first time riding a bull at the queer rodeo.
The narratives coalesce around the power of self-determination, and Gilford beautifully reinforces it with his direction. The art photographer and filmmaker has an evocative, sensual eye that seeks the beauty and warmth of every moment. He bathes the homestead’s desert bacchanal in gentle, hazy light that recalls the Italian summers in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. Gilford crafts similarly mystical atmospheres to accompany Dylan’s exposure to new queer experiences, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. He yields as much power from the delicate intimacy between the characters. Dylan’s younger brother Cassidy removing Dylan’s make-up, captured in extreme and regular close-ups, is one of the film’s best scenes.
Gilford also draws out uniformly strong performances from his cast. Charlie Plummer is revelatory as Dylan, a deceptively quiet and stoic figure who also radiates yearning for anything more. Plummer gently chips away at Dylan’s protective shell to reveal the unbridled joy and heartrending pain of partially requited love. It is one of the year’s most emotionally satisfying cinematic experiences. Eve Lindley imbues Sky with an intelligence and self-awareness about her relationship with Dylan, while still indulging in his innocence. Lindley and Plummer have a chemistry that allows both modes – heated passion and sweet tenderness – to operate successfully and in tandem.
Western American culture has been perceived as hostile to queer identities for so long that a queer rodeo seems inconceivable. In National Anthem, Luke Gilford opens that world to Dylan and audiences, immersing us in the exquisite affirmation of finding space and people dedicated to your exploration, care, and well-being. His sun-drenched, open-hearted film feels poised to do for others as House of Splendor did for Dylan. There are undoubtedly other Dylans whom society has told that who they are isn’t compatible with where they live and how they grew up. Thankfully, Gilford proves there is more to the world than we realize. As Dylan alludes to in his conversation with Carrie, anything is possible.
National Anthem held its International Premiere as part of the Centrepiece section at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.
Director: Luke Gilford
Writers: Luke Gilford, David Largman Murray, Kevin Best
In National Anthem, Luke Gilford opens that world to Dylan and audiences, immersing us in the exquisite affirmation of finding space and people dedicated to your exploration, care, and well-being. His sun-drenched, open-hearted film feels poised to do for others as House of Splendor did for Dylan.
A late-stage millennial lover of most things related to pop culture. Becomes irrationally irritated by Oscar predictions that don’t come true.