David Thorpe’s breezy, insightful doc answers its title’s question before it’s even begun. Thorpe, a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, reads the names of the film’s production companies before the opening credits, and there’s little doubt about it — he speaks with the somewhat lisping, upward-inflected voice that, yes, has at least since vaudeville been associated with male homosexuality. Thorpe’s more pressing questions soon prove to be Why do I sound gay? and Can I train myself to sound straight? To those ends, he turns to speech therapists, vocal coaches, linguists, and celebrity thinkers (Dan Savage, David Sedaris), presenting the search for answers as a personal quest. He sometimes hates that he sounds like, as he puts it, “a braying nellie.”
His findings are inconclusive — maybe the stereotypically “gay” voice is unconsciously imitative behavior, and maybe it’s less common than you might expect — but his ultimate conclusion is never in doubt. After drilling his way through voice-flattening lessons, and asking audiences to sit through too many montages of him practicing blandly masculine speech patterns, Thorpe leaves us with a love-yourself-for-who-you-are message you’ll see coming 90 minutes before it hits.
But getting there is rewarding. Thorpe offers charming, intimate glimpses of his life, including memorable chats with friends and experts, and he’s adept at drawing winning quotes from interview subjects — one of the most moving moments comes from George Takei.
His clip-job considerations of the history of that voice in our media culture make the point that Hollywood’s idea of swank urbanity is interchangeable with that of limp-wristed wickedness. But it’s the personal material that proves most arresting, such as interviews with college friends who recall that it was the semester that Thorpe outed himself that his S’s became languorous — or Sedaris, pointing out that, years later, he realized all the kids in his speech classes must have been gay. He gets a laugh, but the question of why those boys spoke that way remains mysterious.
Do I Sound Gay?
Directed by David Thorpe
Opens July 10, IFC Center