Outfest ’19 Review: James Sweeney’s “Straight Up” Is Cool to the Touch Yet Bursting with Heart

It’s unusual to find exactly what you’re looking for in the self-help section of a library, but Todd (James Sweeney) and Rory (Katie Findlay) would seem to be the exception in “Straight Up.” Rory is actually there looking for a job, hoping to support herself while chasing dreams of being an actress, and assumes that Todd, well-dressed and kindly, is who she should hand her application to, but upon clearing up that misconception rather quickly, they find they have an easy rapport and a surprising amount in common, both inspired to apply to Yale because of their shared love of “Gilmore Girls.” It isn’t long before they’re exchanging numbers, though you know from the start this might not be a perfect romantic match, given the major thing they appear to have in common – they’re both thought to be attracted to men.

Sweeney, in his feature directorial debut, flirts with disaster on both sides of the camera, considering the riskiness of following though on a premise that requires considerable sensitivity and intelligence in a satisfying way, but fashioning Todd as an effeminate devotee of Marie Kondo for whom the exchange of bodily fluids simply makes no sense paves an exceptionally fresh and mercilessly funny path to asking whether the question of one’s identity can really be their own or if it is a social construct. With his closest friends Meg (Dana Drori) and Ryder (James Scully) insisting he’s gay, he’s eager to prove a point once Rory enters his life by making her his girlfriend, though as the months go by without physically consummating their romance, she begins to wonder what the endgame is and as Todd battles against conforming to a stereotype people have of him, she finds herself looking towards traditional benchmarks to understand the sacrifices she’ll have to make to stay in a relationship where sex will always be off the table.

Although Sweeney had the benefit of being intimately familiar with the film’s rat-a-tat rhythms of conversation before having to perform it, Findlay takes to the distinctive fast-paced dialogue effortlessly and does an exquisite job of conveying the underlying desperation of someone rapidly losing any control she has over her own life while boasting the natural effervescence to suggest she can overcome odds heavily stacked against her, if that’s succeeding at a career in the movie business or finding ways to be fulfilled over the long term with Todd when she knows he needs her. The energy between the two is infectious and as if that weren’t enough, “Straight Up” is as punchy aesthetically as it is linguistically, with cinematographer Greg Cotten providing zesty whip-pans to keep up with the rapid repartee and split-focus diopter shots to give equal weight to both actors inside a tight Academy aspect ratio frame that feels increasingly confining.

Every frame bears an attention to detail that the meticulous Todd couldn’t trifle with, and production designer Tye Whipple and costume designer Neesa Martin’s use of vibrant colors within a relatively muted palette are a wonderful accent to all the emotions kicking around that have trouble breaking through to the surface. However, as a whole, “Straight Up” is immediately pungent — perhaps its central character may be conflicted about the person he should be, but Sweeney arrives fully-formed in his identity as a filmmaker, delivering a sharp romantic comedy in which love may not be communicated with touch, but it is nonetheless deeply felt.

“Straight Up” does not yet have U.S. distribution.