Starring: Sook-Yin Lee, Paul Dawson, Lindsay Beamish, PJ DeBoy, Raphael Barker
I absolutely adore John Cameron Mitchell, who wrote, directed and produced Shortbus, his second film after the more famous Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It's a queer drama/comedy, kind of like with Hedwig, except with explicit sex instead of songs. The film shows intersecting stories that revolve around a local sex club/art salon in New York, the titular Shortbus, which is frequented by a sexually diverse, emotionally challenged group of people. Sofia, essentially the centerpiece of the film, is a married sex therapist who pretends that she and her husband are happily married and have a wonderful sex life. In reality, she has never achieved orgasm. She works with Jamie and James, respectively a former child actor and a former prostitute, a gay couple who are considering opening up their relationship. When she freaks out during a session, they take sympathy and invite her to Shortbus, held in the home of Justin Bond, a drag performance artist (who plays himself). She loosens up a bit and becomes friends with an uptight dominatrix named Severin, who has never had a real relationship. The film charts the difficulties of Sofia, Jamie and James, and Severine, leading somewhat towards the crux of their problems and a believable solution.
Shortbus is certainly flawed, but its almost hippy-like sentimentality is a refreshing break from other dramas with unsimulated sex, many of which are deeply challenging and anything but sexy. At its core, this is an indie drama about emotional isolation, about people attempting to make a connection with other people in the other way they know how: sex. This completely charming film is able to overcome its sometimes trite script and the actors overcome limited performances with their sheer devotion to the characters. The core actors helped create the story with Mitchell through a series of improv sessions and workshops. Unfortunately Sofia’s quest to find an orgasm is the central plot point of the film, which seems tame compared to some of the other characters’ problems. I also feel that the “quest for an orgasm” plot drive is more tame and conventional than the rest of the film wants to be. As a result of this, there are many fluffy sitcom-like moments that become a bit grating.
I think Shortbus remains the most sexually explicit non-pornography film made in the U.S. Much of the sex is unsimulated; there is hetero- and homosexual sex, oral, anal, masturbation, threesomes, use of sex toys, some mild S&M, and so on. One of the finest scenes in the film involves a male threesome where one character sings the national anthem into his partner’s asshole. Shortbus deals with various sexual and emotional problems in a warm, sensitive way, but it definitely isn't the kind of film to watch when you're in the mood for a typical romantic comedy.
Despite the film’s flaws, Mitchell’s aim to challenge conventional portrayals of sex in mainstream cinema makes this film very much worth watching. The film looks great, and though it lacks the over-the-top style of Hedwig, you can clearly tell that this is a Mitchell film. The documentary footage, shot by James’ character, is a particularly nice touch. There are also many delightful moments of humor and wit and the overall light, joyous tone is refreshing without fully embracing a happy ending and positive solutions for all. As Justin Bond so fittingly puts it, Shortbus is “like the ‘60s, but with less hope.” I loved the film and it comes highly recommended. Pick up the region 1 DVD, which has some lovely special features, including an interesting commentary track from Mitchell and some of the cast members.