SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2013
By Don Simpson | January 25, 2013
Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Writing: Kyle Patrick Alvarez (screenplay), David Sedaris (story)
Starring: Jonathan Groff, Denis O’Hare, Dean Stockwell, Corey Stoll, Troian Bellisario, Casey Wilson, Dale Dickey, Louis Hobson, Eloy Méndez
Samuel (Jonathan Groff) is taking a hiatus from a prestigious, Northeastern graduate school in order to reconnect with nature and the common man. He arrives in rural Oregon to pick apples for the curmudgeonly Hobbs (Dean Stockwell) and quickly learns that the task at hand is not an easy one. As the only non-Hispanic on the apple picking crew, Samuel quickly finds himself promoted from the fields to the local warehouse; then, as the only male on the assembly line of the warehouse, Samuel finds himself promoted once again.
While Samuel’s race and gender do earn him a couple of promotions in the workplace, he is still an urban elitist and devout atheist, which pegs him as an outsider in the community. He eventually adapts by toning down his patronizing intellectualism and choosing Jesus as his personal savior; but once a deeply closeted secret is revealed, Samuel’s new friends instantly ostracize him.
A morally complex narrative, C.O.G. is a rollercoaster ride of religion, class and gender issues. Even by the conclusion of the film, it is still difficult to nail down the opinion(s) of writer-director Kyle Patrick Alvarez or the author of the source memoir, David Sedaris. One minute C.O.G. seems be making fun of the know-it-all attitude of bourgeois academia, the next minute it is still satirizing Mr. Smarty Pants — okay, so that is obviously a bad example. So, let’s take the film’s perception of Christianity instead. C.O.G. seems to simultaneously mock and praise Christians. The Christians are good, kind people; except when that goodness and kindness is revealed to be shockingly superficial or horrendously close-minded. So, the Christians are the heroes and villains of this narrative; they “save” Samuel, developing him into a kinder person, only to drop him like a hot potato.
Gays are treated with same sort of bi-polar abandon. C.O.G. features two gay characters, one of whom owns a perverse “toy” collection of phallic figurines with which we can only assume he intends to find a partner to sodomize. This character’s aggression and inability to take no for an answer is precisely what homophobes fear the most. The other character, Samuel, is psychologically scarred by his parents’ rejection of his gayness and opts to hide his sexuality as a survival technique. So, for all intents and purposes, Samuel is asexual. I find the depictions of these two gay characters especially interesting, especially since Samuel functions as Sedaris’ avatar.
Of course, like much of Sedaris’ oeuvre, C.O.G. is saturated with self-criticism and self-mockery. Samuel’s elitist attitude is certainly no better than the ultra-conservative tunnel-vision of the Christians; just as Samuel’s closeted gayness is no better than the superficial kindness of the Christians. In C.O.G., just like in real life, nobody is perfect and everyone is flawed. This sends our sympathies into a constant state of flux; one minute we may like a particular character, the next minute we become uncomfortable for ever liking them. It takes talented writing and directing to pull a trick like this off, and Alvarez’s adaptation effortlessly succeeds at doing so.