By Don Simpson | December 8, 2011
Writer: Berndt Mader
Starring: Ryan Akin, Noell Coet, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Jon Gries, Justin Arnold, Don Pirl, Betty Buckley, Gabi Walker, Robert Longstreet, Juli Erickson
Writer-director Berndt Mader’s Five Time Champion takes on romantic relationships at three distinct stages in life. On one level is the pubescent romance of Julius (Ryan Akin) and Shiley (Noell Coet). Julius is a science nerd who is more interested in worms than sex, much to the disappointment of Shiley. His ambivalence towards sex makes Julius wonder if maybe he caught the proverbial “gay gene” from his absentee father Harold (Robert Longstreet).
Julius finds himself disapproving of his taxidermist mother, Danielle’s (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) choice of beaus. Danielle is in the throws of a long-term relationship with Julius’ school principal, Melvin Glee (Jon Gries), who offers some much needed financial security to Danielle and a masculine figurehead for Julius, but little else. When Danielle finds herself hopelessly fending off propositions from a significantly younger man (Justin Arnold) she is forced to contend with the reckless feelings of youthful sexual desire that she has buried for many years. Julius also observes as his grandparents — Fran (Betty Buckley) and Alwyn (Don Pirl) — encounter some romantic difficulties of their own, discovering that his grandfather is spending a lot of time with another woman, an ailing former lover (Juli Erickson).
Observing his mother’s and grandparents’ romantic situations feeds more complications into the ball of sexual confusion burning in Julius’ brain. Julius’ existential turmoil — specifically regarding his sexual orientation and relationships — leads him down a path of increasingly self-destructive behavior. Having people make life decisions for him, such as joining the baseball team or enrolling in a prestigious science school, drives Julius even crazier. Julius all but screams for this crazy tilt-a-whirl of life to stop and let him off.
The true genius of Five Time Champion is Mader’s tactful handling of his thoughtful observations about relationships and aging. I cannot recall a film that so adeptly conveys the hormonal confusion of sexuality at the threshold of one’s teenage years. My first “relationship” was in eighth grade (when I was around Julius’ age), and while I was quite confused about my girlfriend’s advances, my girlfriend was confused by my mixed signals — so we were in the same boat as Shiley and Julius. Being able to observe Julius as he does and says some of the very same things that I recall doing at that age is an eerie experience to behold. At a certain point in one’s life, the purpose of relationships seems to change. Suddenly financial stability and fear of loneliness become major factors in whom we choose to date; and Danielle seems to be going through the same trials and tribulations as the 30- and 40-something single mothers whom I know. Oddly enough, the narrative thread that I enjoyed the most was that of Fran and Alwyn; maybe because it provides us with the hope that even strong emotions such as jealousy can be dealt with if we are just mature about it.