Film

“Bwoy” Offers an Elliptical, Troubling Study of Sex, Race, and Grief Online

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“Sexy, aggressive daddy looking for sub bottom boy who knows how to fuck,” types pale, meek-looking Brad (Anthony Rapp) into his online hookup profile in the opening scene of Bwoy, not long after lowering his age and upping his dick size. Then he changes his location from Schenectady, New York, to Kingston, Jamaica. And before he knows it, he’s connected with Yenny (Jimmy Brooks), a young Jamaican man with a nice smile and a cheerfully frank attitude. Brad says he travels to Jamaica on business, but it’s pretty clear that he doesn’t; he works at a Schenectady call center, hitting up customers of unnamed companies for their late payments. Online, this man is living out a fantasy he will never really attain. But what about Yenny? Even after the conversations graduate from texts to video calls, we continue to wonder if we will ever know who he really is.

There’s obviously more to this young man on the other side of the computer screen, but John G. Young’s understated drama takes some time getting to it. Indeed, the film touches on a lot of issues — some deeply disturbing — without ever really exploring them. But it also makes such glancing blows part of its aesthetic. Early on, glimpses of black bodies on display, via the gay dating app Brad is using, are intercut with Google searches about the history of Jamaica — using terms such as slavery, sugar cane, and suffering. And then there are the quick shots of an African American child in a pool — Brad’s young son, who drowned not long ago, and whom he wasn’t there to help. Meanwhile, Brad’s wife, Marcia (De’Adre Aziza, doing a lot with very little), appears lost in her own melancholy. But Young keeps his camera close on Brad and focuses his narrative almost exclusively on the online interactions between this middle-aged white man and the young black man who calls him “Daddy Brad.”

Is Yenny a kind of displaced substitute for the child who died? An appalling connection, perhaps, and yet the impression we get is not one of deviancy but of a broken man trying to cauterize his trauma through an extreme sexual fantasy, one that combines both wish fulfillment and self-negation. (I was reminded at times of Atom Egoyan’s masterpiece, Exotica, which toys with a similar dynamic.) Of course, the racial angle adds another element of unsettling role-play, with its evocations of domination and subservience. At one point, Yenny asks Brad to come to Jamaica so he can cook for him and massage him and sexually service him.

For most of its running time — thanks to director Young’s visual rigor and the excellent performances of its leads — Bwoy keeps us in this cinematic fugue state, where reality only peeks through in brief flashes. But we know that it can’t live there forever. The story, such as it is, remains broadly predictable: Just as we see that Brad is putting on a pretense, we sense that the rug will eventually be pulled out from under his fantasy world, one way or the other. Certainly, Yenny can see that the man he’s talking to is not the aggressive, macho type he claims to be, yet both of them persist in the charade. Somewhat ironically, that understanding allows the movie to maintain its style of coy disengagement, of raising all sorts of horrific topics without ever entirely facing them. I’m not sure that the way Bwoy resolves some of these issues — to the extent that it resolves any of them — is at all satisfying, or even artful. But I can’t say I wasn’t absorbed and troubled by much of this film.

Bwoy
Written and directed by John G. Young
Opens June 23, Museum of the Moving Image

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