On Amazon Video Monday night I watched Southern Baptist Sissies, a Del Shores film production of his acclaimed stage play about four young Southern men grappling with their sexuality. It explores the conflict between the caustic rhetoric of dogmatic religion and the fragile development of adolescent homosexuality while challenging hypocrisy, exposing damage and offering hope. The intimate experience of theatre on the film screen reveals the complicated emotions from all sides–the confused child, the struggling adolescent and the angry and damaged adult.
The powerful message of Del Shores’ Southern Baptist Sissies has unfortunately not diminished in importance since the play received its premiere in 2000. Having been produced extensively in regional theaters throughout the country, the work about the crises of faith suffered by four gay young Baptist men has now been given a cinematic treatment, albeit of a limited kind. Shore filmed a recent Los Angeles stage production, incorporating footage shot both in front of live audiences and without. The results are technically proficient even while displaying the inherent limits of filmed theater.
Set in Texas, the story follows four boys from childhood to their early twenties as they struggle with their sexuality in varying ways. Mark (Emerson Collins), who serves as narrator, questions the Baptist church that preaches love and forgiveness while decrying homosexuality; Benny (Willam Belli) fully embraces his gayness, growing up to become a flamboyant drag queen entertainer; TJ (Luke Stratte- McClure) desperately tries to deny who he is, eventually getting married to a woman; and Andrew (Matthew Scott Montgomery), the most troubled of the group, wrestles with the conflicting demands of his faith and his sexuality with ultimately tragic results.
Serving as a Greek chorus of sorts are the barflies Peanut (Leslie Jordan), an older gay man, and his best friend, the hard-drinking Odette (Dale Dickey), who humorously discuss their lives and comment on the proceedings during numerous sessions at a gay bar.
There are also many amusing moments, including a series of confessional monologues by the young men about their burgeoning sexuality. One, describing how he used to masturbate to pictures of the boy band ‘N Sync, comments, “I tried switching from Justin to Britney once, but I lost focus.” But the chief fun comes from the veteran scene stealers Jordan and Dickey, who beautifully blend humor and pathos in their many scenes together.
I laughed so much throughout most of the film. Also, the music is wonderful as they sing old standard hymns, to which I found myself singing along. It’s an incredibly emotional film, and if you grew up in a southern church, you will see yourself in these boys. You might also even see your mama in their mamas. While I laughed through most of the film, I cried at the end. The most emotion comes at the end of the movie, but it won’t be a surprise, you’ll see what’s coming a mile away. While the final scenes are predictable, the emotions are still there.