Toronto
3 min

Scared of the dark?

Gay flick doesn't offer easy answers

BREAKDOWN OR NIGHTMARE. Dan Futterman and Alan Cumming star in the disturbing debut from Jon Shear, Urbania. Credit: Xtra files

Watching Urbania is like witnessing a car accident – shocking, disturbing and inexplicably hypnotic. An adventurous and challenging look at the life of a gay man trying to reconstruct his world after a malicious act of violence, the film is bound to resonate with anyone who’s ever felt less than safe in the big city – exactly what the director of Urbania, former theatre director and actor Jon Shear, wants.



“How does the world look to you and how do you process the world when you’ve undergone a trauma?” says Shear. “And that trauma is both positive and negative. The trauma of falling in love is still a trauma – the world looks different. It’s the same thing when you’ve been victimized, you see danger everywhere you look.”



Urbania follows Charlie (Dan Futterman from TV’s Chasing Amy) as he spends a night roaming the shadowy streets of the city. A man on a mission, Charlie is “looking for a guy,” he tells a friendly bartender, but for what? Love? Sex? Revenge? As Charlie’s path crosses with friends and strangers, various urban folk tales – the man waking up in the bathtub missing a kidney, or the woman microwaving her poodle – come to life.



Or do they?



Shear drops viewers right into the middle of Charlie’s breakdown cum nightmare, leaving us scrambling to make sense of the story. “You’re trying to figure out the puzzle at the same time you’re being taken somewhere completely different emotionally than you’re used to,” he says.



Using the folk tales, with their could-it-be-true? allure, allowed him to comment on the way gay culture is often viewed by straight people. “The mainstream culture right now is fascinated and titillated by gay and lesbian activity and culture. They don’t want to see the gritty details but want to hear about it and imagine it.”



As the film builds to its disturbing climax, the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, and we learn the startling reasons for Charlie’s nocturnal wanderings.



A gripping and intense experience, Urbania nevertheless has moments of humour to relieve the tension. In one scene, Charlie is picked up by a closeted actor and taken to his apartment for a quick fuck. As the groping begins, they both jockey for position, fighting over who will be the top. Shear uses this scene not only to comment on the dangerous allure of anonymous sex but also to poke fun at the stereotypical closeted fag who, due to his own internal homophobia, insists on identifying as bisexual (despite not having had a girlfriend since junior high).



When casting the film Shear found plenty of evidence that homophobia in Hollywood still exists. “A lot of agents thought it was pornography,” he explains. “One actor called me up crying because his agent told him that if he did the movie his position in that agency would be jeopardized.”



Despite freaked-out agents, and a lack of time and money (Urbania was shot in 18 days with a budget of only $225, 000; it’s his debut as a director), Shear managed to assemble a dream cast. In addition to Dan Futterman’s deeply felt performance as Charlie, the cast includes Alan Cumming, Matt Keeslar and Canadian actor Lothaire Bluteau.



Reminiscent of the edgy, groundbreaking queer films of the early ’90s (The Living End, Swoon, Poison) Urbania presents a sometimes unlikeable gay character who doesn’t always do the right thing and makes no apologies for refusing to be a role model.



Shear is happy to defy PC expectations and confront stereotypes. “We all have myths about each other,” he explains, “sexual myths about what a gay man is, what a straight man is, and to me there are no hard and fast boundaries.



“Every time you think you know where you are we’ll give you the stereotype and then we’ll take it away and fill it out..I would hope that what audiences expect is to be taken somewhere that they haven’t been before – seeing things that they haven’t seen and feeling things that they haven’t felt.”



Urbania deftly delivers on all counts. It opens Fri, Oct 27.