Weekend is a quiet, well-executed study of a relationship’s first-bloom. But since it’s a tale of boy meets boy instead of boy meets girl (or meets aliens, or really cool weapons, or, best of all, aliens that can turn into really cool weapons!), Andrew Haigh’s film is a gem that’s destined to garner little attention outside of Netflix’s Gay & Lesbian genre section.
The plot is simple. Russell (Tom Cullen) goes out on a Friday, first to a friend’s house and then to a gay bar. He brings Glen (Chris New) home with him. They hook up. The traditional heterosexual viewer experiences relief when nothing very explicit is shown. (That was a close one!) Over the next two days, the two men take the first steps in that orientation-immune dance in which we all participate. Is this something special? And if so, for a moment or a day? For longer?
The success or failure of Weekend rests upon the shoulders of Cullen and New. Neither actor falters. As Russell, Cullen’s calm mix of comfort and discomfort stands out, an impressive feat given that, as Glen, New gets the more frenetic, discursive role. Bolstered by a script that eschews stereotypes, Cullen and New bring to life two memorable characters whose growth in the course of the film is both visible and authentic.
Russell is partially closeted—some of his friends know, and he doesn’t actively pretend to be straight, but nor is he comfortable with PDGAs (public displays of gay affection). Cullen does a marvelous job portraying the ever-present anxiety Russell feels as he strives to blend into an environment where he knows “his kind” can face simmering antagonism and outright aggression. Though much smaller in frame, Glen is out and proud, chafing beneath straight society’s expectations that he be less of both. With both characters, Haigh avoids the tired clichés embodied by gay characters in more mainstream films. Russell is not a tightly closeted gay man struggling to accept his sexually identity—he’s just a man who recognizes the ever-present, not-so-subtle hostility levied towards his lifestyle and who prefers to avoid being its focus if possible. For Glen, the ambient homophobia that Russell shies from is a source of keen annoyance, something to be tirelessly attacked and inveighed against. But rather than the almost inevitable “scrappy brawler” caricature, Glen evinces a passion that is well-served by his intelligence. (In one scene, after noticing some sullen glares from two men in a bar, Glen fearlessly goes on the offensive—but his attack takes the form of spirited, dogged debate.) Both tacks are beyond refreshing—not to mention reasonable—and one of the many avenues by which Haigh’s film reveals its caliber.
As for how well Weekend captures this or that slice of gay culture, I’m not in a position to say. But I do know that the same scenes that make me squirm are the same ones that will keep Weekend from achieving even the modest “art house tier” distribution numbers an indie of its quality would normally enjoy. These same scenes permeate the rom-coms, thrillers and dramedies of the big boys—but since those films involve hot Adam-on-Eve action, it’s acceptable. Director Haigh is well aware of this contradiction—at one point in Weekend, Glen complains, “Watch out! The straights are coming! Let’s not upset them! Let’s hide in our little ghettos. Let’s not hold hands. Let’s not kiss in the street.” This “straight sensibility” will most certainly ensure Tom Cullen’s understated, yet tone-crucial performance as Russell will net few honors outside of the film festival circuit. (And there is something wrong with that.)
Ultimately, Weekend reminds its viewers that homosexual couples fall in love in much the same way as heterosexual ones: with careful restraint and bursts of joy, with nagging doubts and tentative hopes, and with the desire to connect at odds with the fear of being hurt.