FRAMELINE The eponymous character in Ash Christian's Mangus! has a simple ambition: to be Jesus. That is, to play Jesus in the local production of Jesus Christ Spectacular. Mangus does get the part, but his dreams are crushed when a freak limo accident lands him in a wheelchair and his neighbors decide he's no longer cut out to play their Lord and Savior.
"When you're in a small town and you want to be an actor and you don't get the lead, it's the most devastating thing in the whole world," says Christian (2006's Fat Girls), who was inspired by his own history in community theater.
Mangus! is an interesting but wise choice for Frameline: while it features queer characters (including Mangus' sister Jessica Simpson, played by Heather Matarazzo), the film as a whole is subtler than other festival picks. It has what Christian calls a "queer sensibility," but much of that is subtextual.
"I don't look at it as a queer film," offers Matarazzo. "I just look at it as a really great dark comedy."
Christian's cast is full of actors who might be considered queer icons — among them Matarazzo, Jennifer Coolidge, and Leslie Jordan. But Matarazzo, who is openly gay, doesn't want to restrict herself.
"When I'm playing to a specific audience because I want this to be a gay and lesbian film, that's fine for any filmmaker who desires to do that," she reflects. "But for me, film is really about unifying on all fronts."
And Christian has his own ambitions. Mangus! is a dark comedy in the tradition of Christian's cinematic idols John Waters and Todd Solondz. (It's worth noting that Waters has a cameo in the film, and Matarazzo made her breakthrough in Solondz's 1995 Welcome to the Dollhouse.) With this work, Christian tackles the topic of discrimination apart from sexuality.
"I'd never really seen a movie with a young disabled kid who had a dream," he says. "It deals with discrimination in a small town, which I've definitely been a part of — not with a disability, but because of the gay thing."
Mangus! is both hilarious and poignant because its filmmaker is unafraid to hold anything back. It somehow manages to walk the line between over-the-top and honest, presenting a portrayal of disability and sexuality that will only shock those not in on the joke.
"Ash is the perfect master of getting to bring absolute balance in terms of letting an audience pity a character, but then also cheer for him and go along with the ride," Matarazzo notes. "There was never any kind of mentality of trying to manipulate the audience."
For a while, Christian did worry about audiences taking his films the wrong way, but he admits that it's no longer a concern. Indeed, he takes pleasure in making movies edgy enough to unnerve people.
"It's just something that's going to keep happening because I don't want to tell boring stories for Lifetime," he says. "It's not really what I want to do. So it kind of turns me on now to have people actually have a problem with what I'm trying to say."
Those who take Christian's film in the intended tone will appreciate that it's not meant to be mean-spirited. In the tradition of the great queer films that came before it, Mangus! lives outside the box: it's unconventional, subversive, and yes, not even a little bit PC.
"In my heart, I'm not trying to say anything offensive at all," Christian explains. "They're just taking it that way."
Wed/15, 8:30 p.m., $11
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