‘Down Low’ SXSW review – A queer and horny dark comedy

Any film where the title is superimposed on a hand job is naturally gonna catch your attention. Zachary Quinto‘s long-repressed character Gary is on the receiving end of that momentous happy ending in Down Low, and Lukas Gage‘s younger character Cameron is the bold provider. Now, this might have been a fleeting sexual transaction had Gary not confessed this was his first time ever with another man since coming out and being shunned by everyone he knows. An overenthusiastic Cameron then stops everything to invite over a rando found on the film’s Grindr analog, Plungr. According to Cameron, Gary hasn’t officially come out until he’s hooked up with a stranger.

Suffice it to say, things don’t go according to plan.

After some vicious verbal foreplay and a brief BJ sesh, Gary and Cameron’s Plungr date, a terminally closeted masc nicknamed Looking2Suc, gets spooked by the situation at hand and inadvertently hurls himself out a second-story window in Gary’s lovely Long Island house. This is clearly a (tragicomical) accident, but in true fashion, the main characters panic and hide the body. The problem doesn’t end there, of course; like it’s her job, Gary’s devout and Ambien-poppin’ neighbor (Judith Light) endangers the gameplan.

Queer comedies aren’t usually, if ever, as grisly as Down Low, so Rightor Doyle‘s directorial debut is already unique. This brash and hectic film admittedly doesn’t do away with the usually unfavorable “bury your gays” trope, but Gage and Phoebe Fisher‘s script is free of hate crimes, suicide and AIDS. Instead, outlandish antics are to blame for the film’s meager body count. Death here doesn’t come with too much weight or afterthought; someone’s sudden passing is treated with the right amount of reverence necessary to keep the mood generally playful. And this film is never in short supply of zaniness; from start to end Down Low loves to be silly.

Not even the best comedies can subsist on shenanigans. This film, where almost every inch is humorous, gets serious from time to time. These tonal changes come in waves after Cameron learns what is truly ailing his uptight client turned friend-in-adversity. The film then becomes a pert yet sometimes accurate study of generational differences among young and older gay men. Considering Down Low is still replete with wackiness, including a makeover montage prior to meeting a necrophile, or a tuneful manifestation of the characters’ collective and crack-induced fantasy, it’s understandable if this film’s weightier moments cause some whiplash. However, if unpredictability is your thing, then Down Low has that and then some.

Down Low takes place all in one night, save for an epilogue. And with breakneck pacing and no major lulls to wear it down, Doyle’s first film comes away with only minor shortcomings. This comedy is at its best when smashed and always firing off jokes. The dramatic detours, while well acted and touching, are eclipsed by those funnier set pieces and dialogue exchanges. Even so, this unapologetic dark comedy is a refreshing change of routine for queer coming-out experiences.

Down Low premiered at South by Southwest 2023.

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