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Movie Review: The Exhibitionists

By Mike Everleth ⋅ May 30, 2013

Movie poster featuring Laverne Cox in a sexy outfit

When a film with a title such as The Exhibitionists opens with a quote from the late French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, one can be fairly assured that what happens on-screen for the next eighty-eight minutes will attempt to mix high class with a trash sensibility.

(That quote, which indeed does open The Exhibitionists, reads: “At the heart of pornography is sexuality haunted by its own disappearance.”)

The film, directed by Michael Melamedoff, has a modern sensibility in the guise of its main antagonist, Walter Todd (Richard Short), a neophyte documentary filmmaker whom, as we gather from his cocksure strutting across the lives of the other characters, most likely considers himself a genius. Walter is the bastard descendant of James Spader’s Graham Dalton in Sex, Lies and Videotape, which is fitting since under the movie’s modern veneer lies a ’90s indie film soul.

Although Walter represents the modern idea of exploiting other people’s misery through cheap, garishly lit and poorly framed digital video, Melamedorff and cinematographer Robbie Renfrow buck that particular visual trend and imbue The Exhibitionists with a very classy and moody look. It’s a style that requests the audience’s attention to take the events on-screen seriously, giving the film a weight that tends to be missing in today’s no-budget film scene.

This is a very deliberate movie in the way it carefully frames and lights its scenes, assembles its characters like a chess game with their specific neuroses and taboo behaviors guiding their moves across the board and injects just the right chaotic catalyst into the mix to keep the action humming along. Granted, the film could have benefited from a little messiness around the edges to give it a little more life, but, in a way, the formalism Melamedoff strictly imposes on the material is refreshing. On the side of high class mixed with trash, Melamedoff leans more heavily toward high class.

On a perfectly nondescript New Year’s Eve, a gaggle of middle class, young, white urbanites believe they are going to enjoy a banal, uneventful celebration. A light dinner, stiff conversation, lack of party favors and it’s not even clear if anyone thought to bring any champagne.

However, Walter, having just returned from a documentary filmmaking expedition, has other ideas and introduces three rogue elements to loosen up his overly uptight friends, to what end it’s not entirely clear other than perhaps just to capture more salacious material for whatever seemingly poorly thought out film he’s making. Walter, for all his grand gestures is actually a droll dolt.

The first rogue element is a “Spanish Fly” style alcoholic punch concocted with some godawful juice that stains everyone’s mouth red like vampires after feasting. The second rogue element is a person: A seriously buff African American former pop star named Blithe Stargazer (Laverne Cox), who looks like the love child of Grace Jones and RuPaul.

Walter’s “loosening” of his friends, however, yields mixed results. Clearly, the title The Exhibitionists is meant ironically. These naive, inexperienced white folks are so uptight that they don’t have much place to go on the emotional recklessness scale. To have a playground like Stargazer before them and not know what to grope, lick or expose themselves physically to serves as a commentary on the lack of vision and creativity being bred into our younger generation in this country.

Stargazer belongs to a more scandalous and salacious period and appears resentful that her time has passed, so that now she’s forced to play den mother to a bunch of unimaginative nitwits. But, if she has to play the mother role, then her revenge is to force the white kids to metaphorically suckle at her metaphoric teat. Most of the “debauched” behavior we see on display is of an oral nature: Fellatio on a handgun, a pretty little mouth becomes a human ashtray, et. al.

Running parallel with Walter’s shenanigans — and leading to an inevitable, catastrophic intersection — is the story of Walter’s mousy wife, Regina (Pepper Binkley), and her reunion with her pious brother George (Mike Doyle), who has just broken out of a seminary to attend the shindig. What happens during the actual siblings’ reunion doesn’t come as such a great surprise given the nature of the film we’ve been watching, but the characters’ relationship is the deepest and most compelling out of the party guests that it stands out in such bold relief.

The lesson, it seems Melamedoff is trying to push, is that, unlike all of the others, Regina and George at the least seem to have lived some kind of life of emotional depth, even though it may not have been the healthiest life to have lived. And that’s better than not having lived at all.

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