The Sum of Us
"Russell Crowe and John Polson kiss. I don’t know about you, but that certainly flicks my switches," said my Australian friend, who has seen the 1995 Australian release The Sum of Us numerous times. And this is why I was surprised it was chosen to open the one-off Australian Film Festival happening at Grand EGV these next few days.
After all, when Australian novelist Luke Davies read an excerpt of his writing on masturbation at an embassy-sponsored Chiang Mai cultural evening, it caused a minor internal scandal. So now we were going to officially showcase an Australian film about – gasp – homosexuality?
Three cheers for the maturity of this choice – even if it was largely driven by the fact that Looking for Alibrandi had already been shown on Cinemax throughout May, and that Russell Crowe is now a major star. The Sum of Us is a heartwarming but unmawkish film about all kinds of love and how it might be found both in unexpected and expected places, like your own home.
Harry Mitchell, played by an affable Jack Thompson, lives with his only son, Jeff, played by a young Russell Crowe in one of his first features. Jeff is gay, although Harry prefers to say he’s "cheerful", a rare euphemism used by a man who otherwise supports his son’s sexuality right down to buying him pornographic magazines and interrupting him and his lover to ask how they’d like their cup of tea in the morning.
While it could almost seem strange – this need for Harry to be so involved in his son’s sex life – it’s really just the opposite extreme of the way most parents behave towards their children’s sexuality, whichever way it blossoms. Perhaps Harry’s interest stems from the fact that his own mother lived with another woman for 40 years: "It just skipped a generation with me," Harry believes.
For Jeff though, Harry’s wish to be helpful becomes a hindrance when he brings home Greg (John Polson, also the organiser of the now-famous Australian short film competition, Tropicana). Greg lives in an oppressive home environment, and hasn’t yet told his parents about his sexuality. To be suddenly talking to his prospective lover’s father about safe sex and breakfast in the morning is all a bit too "domestic". Greg takes flight and Jeff’s left wondering who he’s ever going to meet.
In the meantime, the widowed Harry is looking for a second chance at love for himself. He plucks up the courage to go to an introduction agency, through which he meets Joyce, a divorcee with whom he gets along well but doesn’t tell about Jeff. Considering how adamant Harry is that he’s proud of Jeff, it’s a surprising secret to keep. Joyce’s reaction when she does find out is either a little over the top – or a stark reminder of how homophobic many seemingly ordinary and nice people can still be.
The Sum of Us was adapted from a screenplay by David Stevens, and it maintains a theatrical feel with the two main actors occasionally speaking lines directly to the camera. In the hands of lesser actors this would be downright annoying, but Thompson and Crowe simply make you feel like you’re really part of their story, and it proves a useful device for injecting some great Australian one-liners along the way.
While the movie is definitely gay-friendly, it’s still somewhat disapproving of gay promiscuity. Jeff and Greg are searching for meaningful partners; most of the other men on the scene, they complain, "only want one thing". Phew, says the subtext, Jeff and Greg might be gay, but at least they’re not promiscuous. It’s okay to like them!
On the other hand, Jeff and Greg can be seen as just two people seeking a stable relationship in a world where most people, regardless of sexual orientation, aren’t necessarily after the same anymore. And in the end, their relationship is seen as being equally important and potentially just as complex as that between father and son.
I guess the only disappointment was provided by an Australian Embassy staff member at the end. "I’ll never be able to look at Russell Crowe in Gladiator the same way again, haw haw," he guffawed. Some people should really just stick to Gladiator.