National Anthem, 2023.
Directed by Luke Gilford.
Starring Charlie Plummer, Robyn Lively, Eve Lindley, Mason Alexander Park, Joey DeLeon, Rene Rosado, and Kimberley Christann Pember,
A 21-year-old construction worker in New Mexico joins a community of queer rodeo performers in search of their own version of the American dream.
In Luke Gilford’s poetically moving and beautifully shot National Anthem, Charlie Plummer plays 21-year-old construction worker Dylan, who understandably scolds his mother Fiona (Robyn Lively) for drinking too much at night and generally not being the best mother to him and his younger brother Cassidy (Joey DeLeon). Right before again taking over parental responsibilities in making his brother macaroni and cheese for dinner, Fiona claps back that Dylan doesn’t know what it’s like to have a social life.
The above is an early moment that confidently announces the script (which Luke Gilford co-writes alongside Kevin Best and David Largman Murray) will explore these complex familial dynamics with care, as it’s true that Dylan, who seems to avoid mingling with his coworkers on their lunch break in what could be for several reasons (they come across like boring individuals who only want to talk about getting laid), doesn’t have a life outside looking after his brother. Due to this rough upbringing, he also might have never had a chance to experience life as a regular carefree teenager.
Perhaps living in New Mexico and being closed off from modern society doesn’t help any of Dylan’s problems, who dreams of buying an RV and traveling the world. Nevertheless, a new job commission brings him to Pepe’s (Rene Rosado) House of Splendor, which he runs with his open relationship partner Sky (Eve Lindley) as an open space set against gorgeous Western backdrops for people to explore their gender and sexual identities, while also partaking in southern hobbies such as rodeos. Essentially, it’s a haven for queer people to discover themselves further, allowing for a wide variety of people from all walks of life to be seen (and considering Luke Gilford has done queer rodeo photoshoots before, he has a grasp on these people and grants them the space to express themselves on screen authentically). Except for Mason Alexander Park delivering strong work in a major supporting role, one wishes the film spent even more time observing them.
First, Dylan is swept up in a massive crush on Sky, going as far as lying up against a rock in the middle of nowhere to fantasize about her sexually. It’s a scene that could have gone wrong fast, but it puts the honesty of this character front and center, allowing everything to feel organic and real. The lush visuals from cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi and a score from Nick Urata that is mostly nonexistent unless it is swelling alongside overwhelming emotions accentuate that relatable honesty.
Dylan is hesitant and possibly nervous to fully engage with the surrounding queer community until Sky pushes him and applies drag eyeliner. From there, he starts to go to the rodeos and familiarizes himself with the way of life on the ranch, questioning and learning more about his identity, having found a community where he belongs. His affection for Sky is still there and eventually leads to an erotic three-way that also makes stunning use of the scenery, but rather than create a love triangle for overworked drama, National Anthem wisely takes the point of view that, while Sky introduced him to something new and beautiful, he can’t attach himself to her and needs to continue pushing forward discovering himself by taking that knowledge in these new feelings into his pursuit of happiness and personal fulfillment.
Just when you think the screenwriters are going to play up the cliché bigoted mother angle freaked out that Dylan brought his brother to a show and bought him a dress to wear, they also pull back from that and remember to keep things human and focus on grounded drama regarding parenting, regret, and love. Charlie Plummer’s performance is as quietly moving as the storytelling is restrained; his body language is half the incredible performance. Eve Lindley is also remarkable as someone sweet and deeply empathetic, aware of the limitations of what she can do for Dylan and what’s best for her. It’s a simple, slow-burn, coming-of-age tale that’s so fascinating because of its diverse community set in an unexpected locale, with a refreshing approach to romance.
There is a newfound discovery of self that you can feel waiting to burst from within him, but National Anthem is about more than that; it’s a graceful statement that Western culture doesn’t just belong to machismo gunslingers and cowboy stereotypes. Every single one of these characters is a beautiful representation of a different American dream and that the country, in theory, is for everyone.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com