Straight Up "started from a place of loneliness" for James Sweeney, the filmmaker told The Advocate. Sweeney directed, wrote, and starred in the production about a gay man, Todd, who, turned off by the messy necessities of sex, tries to make a chaste relationship work with a woman, Rory (Katie Findlay).
Like Todd, the "purebred gay" filmmaker once struggled to meet men and only found meaningful — if not sexual — connections with women in his life. "Oh God, wouldn't it be great if I could just be attracted to you?" he wondered about one of his actress friends. And the idea for Straight Up was born.
Likewise, Sweeney had difficulties finding a place in the gay community. He came out "like a turtle," slowly and without much fanfare to friends and family — other than a revealing game of Bananagrams with his sister, a reference to which appears in Straight Up. It "lightened the mood," Sweeney noted wryly.
Yet, as an Asian-American who grew up in Alaska without LGBTQ friends, the media portrayals of gay culture — bars, loud music, hypersexualization — felt alien to him. Moving to Los Angeles, where gay men seemed more likely to flock to the Abbey than the West Hollywood library, did not improve matters either.
"Growing up, it definitely felt like there was a very specific way to be gay," Sweeney said. "And if I didn't align with that, there was so much cognitive dissonance. I felt like [being] gay was changing who I was. I couldn't just be me anymore. I had to do this other thing."
With time and a media landscape that now has evolved to include more diverse variations of queerness, Sweeney has come to a new understanding of his identity, which does not include conformity. "I think being gay means I'm attracted to men. And beyond that, I can still like all the things I like and be as introverted as I need to be," he said.
Straight Up is part of this shift in showing a view of queer life beyond the tropes. Centrally, it runs from sex rather than reveling in it. Moreover, the film is one of several recent productions, including Netflix's Sex Education, with characters exploring the possibility of asexual identity. These conversations mark a sea change in society's understanding of healthy relationships, said Sweeney.
"Culturally, we are a very sex-obsessed society. It's plastered all over," he said. "I think it's easy to invalidate a sexless lifestyle as unfulfilling. And the more times we can normalize different [kinds of] humanity, then I think that's always a good thing."
And although Todd's aversion to bodily fluids is addressed, in part, for comedic effect in Straight Up, it also speaks to the realities and preferences of many. "You can live a completely full, happy sex life as a gay man and not have anal sex," Sweeney asserted.
Indeed, apart from sex, Rory and Todd seem perfect for one another. They share a love for Old Hollywood and fast-fire repartee that calls to mind Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. (The Gilmore Girls, given the name of its female protagonist, also comes to mind.) Sweeney also cites modern-day showrunners like Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me) and Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) as inspirations.
The screwball banter of Straight Up makes it stand out in Hollywood in 2020, when most productions employ words that place more emphasis on realism than wit. "It doesn't feel like anything else that's coming out these days," Sweeney acknowledged of his film. Which is also part of its appeal, particularly for LGBTQ folks, who historically used wordplay as a "defense mechanism" against a world that attempts to marginalize and erase them, said the filmmaker.
"Words can be a weapon," said Sweeney, that "take the power from someone else." This tradition of gay snark, while less present in blockbusters, lives on in social media spaces like Twitter, whose algorithm rewards wordplay and zingers that take down the mighty and powerful.
With all this in mind, Sweeney still marvels that Straight Up was ever made in its current form, particularly with himself as the star. "Honestly, it was a real fight to get me in this movie," admitted Sweeney. He recounted how an investor pulled out of the film due to a lack of faith that he could portray the role that he had created for himself.
However, Sweeney doubled down. It was important for him that the role be portrayed by a gay actor of Asian descent — "most significant gay leading roles in film history have been portrayed by straight actors," he bemoaned — and he knew he could bring that authentic representation to the part.
Now, he has given a form of representation to the world that he himself always wished he had growing up. And upon showing Straight Up to audiences, he realized others had been yearning for it as well.
"You always hope that your work will touch people, but I've had overwhelming reactions," he said. "A couple [of audience members] have come up to me in tears. For somebody to feel seen, or if seeing this can maybe open somebody's mind? I think I couldn't ask for more."
Straight Up is now playing in select theaters. Watch the trailer below.