It’s perhaps appropriate that Stacie Passon titled her debut feature Concussion. It’s a film that deals with the workings of the brain in bruising ways that many in the recently expanding lexicon of LGBT cinema don’t even attempt. Much like recent film festival smash Stranger by the Lake, Alain Guiraudie’s examination of gay male cruising culture, or Christina Voros’ BDSM pornography-themed documentary Kink, Concussion looks at the way sex plays a very natural place in our lives and the way we so often embrace potentially dangerous sub-cultures in the search for pure therapeutic release in a way that “making love” never can. The decisions that Abby, the married with children woman at the centre of Passon’s wonderful film, are those deemed wrong by wider society, but for all of her struggles she can’t deny the positive changing effect they have on her.
An engagement with a prostitute leads Abby into the world of upper-class sex work. Using the (very handsome, yes) male friend with whom she flips Manhattan apartment spaces as a go between with the enigmatic pimp madam “The Girl”, Abby starts seeing clients in the city away from her divorce attorney wife and the stale, virtually non-existent sex life that they have cultivated in the suburbs. Initially taking on younger clients including an overweight 23-year-old virgin and an academic student, she eventually starts seeing older women. The acts performed amongst these women is never explicit and Abby in fact goes to great lengths to make the situation feel as less like a sex for hire situation and more like the sort of “care free” online hook-ups that have infiltrated the world of gay male sex.
As Abby, the film rests on the shoulders of Robin Weigart’s sensual performance. Known to audiences mostly through her television work on Deadwood, for which she was Emmy and SAG nominated, Sons of Anarchy, and Private Practice, she gives a fabulous performance here. Her deep, soothing voice and strong, feminine appearance proving a captivating presence. Her eagerness in early sex scenes as well as in her interactions with The Girl add dimension to the angst-ridden malaise that slinks throughout the rest of her. The entire predominantly female ensemble, as well as Johnathan Tchaikovsky as Abby’s sorta-pimp, are all fantastic, grounding the movie in an earnest reality that allows the frankness of its subject matter to never veer into exploitative or outlandish territory.
Its handling of the prostitution material is where Concussion works best of all. Thanks to Passon’s heartfelt screenplay, Abby nor the sex-working profession are ever vilified. Much like any other sexual expression that isn’t procreative missionary sex with the lights off, it’s easy to take prostitution into a place that is shameful and damning when it’s just as legitimate a profession as anything else. It’s not the oldest profession in the world, so they so, for no reason. Just like the BDSM of Kink, the au naturel cruising scene of Stranger by the Lake, the porno addiction of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon, or even the inter-generational love affairs of Anne Fontaine’s Adore, it keenly observes the way the thrill of danger can alter our perceptions and our actions, the way we perceive ourselves sexually, and the way sex is a fluid, fluctuating entity that is always mobile and rarely the same thing for two different people. The way this danger can become all-consuming and how it can devour people whole and even result in something more true than the vanilla world promoted by the masses. Concussion is a remarkably sex-positive film and for that it should be commended. And furthermore, that it’s done so in a film involving female-on-female sexuality makes it a rare chance to dive head first into a subject that is rarely represented on screen consciously or not.
However, I have to talk about my screening of the film. I attended a special advance screening at a gay community centre here in New York. The second largest in the country after Los Angeles for what it’s worth. As annoying as the smartphones that were illuminating around me left and right throughout were, it was the two gay men sitting behind me that made my blood boil most of all. Given this was a screening of a lesbian drama at an LGBT center with what I presume was a largely gay female crowd only made it worse.
Their constant narration through the first act of the film was bad enough: repeating dialogue and actions, predicting what was about to happen, and making unfunny quips about some of the images on screen. I wanted to stand up and punch them when one joked, “there’s a reason for that”, upon the admission from the young, overweight woman that she’s never had sex or even been kissed. The scene was an emotional one that starkly pushes the less-discussed themes of lesbian superficiality (a topic usually left to the gym-toned chorus of gay men) to the forefront and they thought it was an appropriate moment to make what I presume they thought was a sassy quip. Not only were they being rude to the audience and the filmmakers who were at the screening, but they were pushing their own ugliness onto the film. That they were ridiculing a character for not fitting into their miserable concept of beauty was also sad, unfunny and cruel made me speak up.
It’s a good thing that the movie was good, yeah? B+