Jonathan Wysocki’s debut feature Dramarama is about the last summer after high school, after the curtain has fallen in the high school auditorium for the last time, just before the cast is about to split up and head their separate ways, everyone going off to college to pursue their dreams. Gene (Nick Pugliese) has decided that this last night, at a murder-mystery dinner-party sleepover thrown by his friend Rose (Anna Grace Barlow), will finally be the night that he tells his friends he’s gay. Over the course of this one consequential night, secrets are revealed, relationships are tested, and Sondheim references abound.
Dramarama was one of my most-anticipated titles at this year’s Outfest, because I grew up a drama kid, exactly the sort of closeted theater geek that Gene is, desperate to tell my friends who I was before it was too late… Even though, c’mon, everyone already kinda knew. We were exactly the kind of theater kids who had murder-mystery dinner parties, too — highly recommend it, by the way. So, going in, I hoped to see myself in Dramarama the way we all hope to see ourselves on screen at a festival like Outfest, which is meant to represent the broad spectrum of LGBTQ+ people in ways mainstream cinema often ignores.
I am happy to report that Dramarama is everything I hoped it would be and more. The central cast of five friends are all delightful and recognizable. Rose is the flamboyantly theatrical one, off to NYC to attend NYU, where she’s sure she’ll be a star. Ally (Danielle Kay) is perhaps a bit too cool for this group and sees them all better than they see themselves. Claire (Megan Suri) is the repressed one, not even sure she likes acting but just happy to have friends. And Oscar (Nico Greetham)… well, more on Oscar in a bit. The 1994-set screenplay is quippy and fun without relying too much on references. It’s all in the delivery: “I read it in Tiger Beat; boys love honesty!” says one friend with authority.
As well as being pleasantly funny, the drama of it all delivers too; before Gene can come out to his Christian friends as “a homo,” he “comes out” instead as agnostic. This revelation, coupled with his friendship with cool-guy pizza delivery boy J.D. (Zak Henri), starts a slow process of him being excluded from the group as the night goes on; it’s heart-wrenching to know he still has this other secret yet to reveal.
Nick Pugliese gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as Gene. His bluster and confidence in front of his friends leads to some viscerally cringe-worthy moments at times, and you want to shake him and tell him to just be honest. But then, the camera will linger on him in the background for a moment as the group moves on, twitches of self-doubt and regret crossing his face, and he’s just crushing. As much as the conversation veers in other, unexpected directions, we know he has this other thing gnawing away at him, and Pugliese lets us see Gene always calculating, biding his time, gauging the others’ moods — is now the right time? Should I say it now?
In addition to Gene, who I related to most strongly, my other favourite character was Oscar. As played by Nico Greetham, Oscar is exactly the sort of sweet, innocent, magnetic boy I recognized all too well from my theater days, one who is still claiming to be straight and is completely naïve to the fact that the whole cast — boys and girls alike — is in love with him. Greetham is excellent in the role, with perfect comic timing and a genuinely adorable devotion to the character’s flights of fancy and propensity for random not-quite-good British accents. It’s also a completely different role than the one he plays in Dinner in America, which premiered yesterday at Fantasia Festival; there, he’s a caricature of malicious, dangerous bro-masculinity, essentially the polar opposite of Oscar. The fact that he pulls off both extremes equally well means Greetham is a rising star to watch.
In the interest of not giving too much away, I’m unable to discuss the part of Dramarama that made me fall head-over-heels in love with the film — though I did discuss it in a lightly-spoilery way when I spoke with Jonathan Wysocki in this interview for TheQueerReview.
Suffice it to say that Dramarama makes one choice that sets it apart from the Love, Simon and Alex Strangeloves of the world, one that makes this coming-out-of-age film ring much truer to my own personal experience than any teen film I think I’ve ever seen. For a certain subset of what Wysocki calls “the nerds and late-bloomers,” Dramarama has the potential to be a cult classic.
By Eric Langberg
Dramarama is available to stream at this year’s virtual Outfest. Find it, along with a cast and filmmaker Q&A, at OutfestLA2020.com, now through August 24th. The film will also play the closing night at the Outfest Drive-In on August 30th.