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The Independent Critic

Emerson Collins, Leslie Jordan, Dale Dickey, Bobbie Eakes, Luke Stratte-McClure, Willam Belli, Ann Walker, Rosemary Alexander, Newell Alexander
Del Shores
Equiv. to "R"
138 Mins.

 Stage Version of "Southern Baptist Sissies" Arrives in Movie Theaters 
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It's the day after.

It's the day after Indiana affirmed its status as one of the country's most conservative states by overwhelmingly supporting HJR - 3, most easily summed up as Indiana's proposed amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage in the state. Originally passed in 2011 as HJR - 6, the resolution must pass a second General Assembly in the same wording in order for it to be placed on a November ballot and put before voters.

There were those who considered its passing a victory of sorts. After all, with Indiana currently having a Republican super-majority in both legislative branches and a Republican Governor, it was widely expected that the amendment's more extreme version that also banned civil unions would be likely to pass.

That didn't happen. With vocal and widespread opposition among many of Indiana's largest employers and even a number of its academic institutions, it became apparent that the "extreme" version wouldn't pass and the second statement was stripped from the amendment and, as such, the legislation won't be on this November's ballot but, instead, could end up on the ballot during what will be a rather interesting election year next year.

Southern Baptist Sissies, written and directed by Del Shores, received rave reviews when it was first staged in Los Angeles in 2000 and ended up receiving a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding LA Theater Production that year along with multiple LA Theater Weekly Awards, Los Angeles Critics' Awards, Ovation Awards, Backstage West Garland Awards, and Robby Awards. Since its debut, Southern Baptist Sissies has maintained a wild popularity nationwide with productions showing up in indie theaters, on college campuses, and in a variety of other places.

Shores has gone on to a life filled with stage, stand-up and cinematic truth-telling with such efforts as Sordid Lives, television's Queer as Folk (as an Executive Producer), and the recent Blues for Willadean among a tremendous diversity of life-changing projects. If you've ever had the gift of chatting with Shores, as have I, then you'd quickly realize a couple of basic truths about the immensely talented man - Shores has a lot of anger and he's not afraid to share it AND he also happens to be one of the most heartfelt, authentic and compassionate people you could ever want to meet.

This Southern Baptist Sissies, which we had the chance to talk briefly about when I was interviewing him to promote one of his stand-up DVD's, is a dream come true for fans of the stage play. Filmed over the course of four live performances of the stage production with some additional close-up footage and extra shots, Southern Baptist Sissies captured the Audience Award for Best Feature at Birmingham's Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival and the Audience Award at North Carolina's Gay and Lesbian Film Festival before its limited theatrical run that kicks off February 21st in Palm Springs, CA followed by extended engagements in Los Angeles at the Downtown Independent starting on March 7th, Detroit at the Cinema Detroit on March 21st, and in New Orleans at the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center starting on April 4th. The film will also have special engagements in Philly on March 13th, Portland on March 28th, and in Sioux Falls on May 4th with additional dates to be announced.

While filming a stage production for theatrical release can prove to be a disaster, Shores has assembled a fine team that turns Southern Baptist Sissies into an experience that is both faithful to its stage roots yet brought even more vividly to life in this cinematic manifestation. Southern Baptist Sissies is the story of "four gay boys who grew up in the Southern Baptist church and the journey that each one takes in learning to accept themselves versus what they've been taught in the church.

Mark (Emerson Collins) becomes a writer who questions pretty much everything.

Benny (Willam Belli) celebrates who he is and becomes a drag queen entertainer.

TJ (Luke Stratte-McClure), on the other hand, tries hard to deny his desires and live as his preacher (Newell Alexander) is telling him to live.

Andrew (Matthew Scott Montgomery) is, perhaps, the character that we hear about most in the news as he grows to struggle with the church and with himself and, in the end, tragedy awaits.

In addition to the film's four central characters, the brilliant Leslie Jordan and the equally brilliant Dale Dickey reprise their roles as comedic and heartfelt barflies whose life experiences are filled with poignancy and preciousness, tenderness and more than a little twistedness.

While some will unquestionably be uncomfortable in watching Southern Baptist Sissies, such discomfort is not a bad thing. The message of Southern Baptist Sissies is one of hope and healing, yet it's a message that is presented without compromise even as it entertains and makes you laugh. The film explores the often painful conflict between the often divisive and hateful rhetoric of dogmatic religion and the fragile development of its young men trying desperately to grow into who they are.

Where Southern Baptist Sissies is most brilliant is, perhaps, in Shores' remarkable ability to be honest and enraged and hurt and vulnerable and amazingly funny while telling such painful truths without ever becoming that hatred which these young men have so obviously experienced in their lives. It's a difficult task to find that balance, and yet Shores does so quite beautifully.

It helps, of course, to have an ensemble cast as gifted as is the one here.

Emerson Collins is extraordinary as Mark, portraying his rage without ever becoming a caricature and de-humanizing him. Collins simultaneously angry and achingly vulnerable in embodying the complex and fully realized Mark.

Willam Belli, whom you may recognize from Rupaul's Drag Race, is vibrant and wonderful as Benny, while Luke Stratte-McClure honestly captures TJ's struggle to hold onto his faith. Matthew Scott Montgomery's performance as Andrew, especially as the film winds down, will, if you have any soul inside you, leave you sobbing and hurt and outrageously pissed off.

Leslie Jordan, an Emmy Award winner for Will & Grace and most recently seen on last season's American Horror Story, again does what he always does by presenting his character Peanut as a man both delightfully funny yet sweet and endearing. Dale Dickey, an Independent Spirit Award winner for Winter's Bone, is so quietly brilliant that you don't realize how incredibly vital she is to the film until it practically hits you over the head.

I could honestly sit here and single out just about everyone, the awesome Newell Alexander to Rosemary Alexander to the rest of the absolutely terrific ensemble cast.

Nickolas Rossi tackles the challenge of lensing the stage production and does so to near perfection, while Joe Patrick Ward's music is exceptional and Jeff Robinson's production design captures the film's intimate and universal themes in ways both subtle and not so subtle.

As a pastor myself, and I am a pastor myself, I am aware that many Christians will immediately dismiss even the thought of seeing Southern Baptist Sissies and that just plain saddens me. Just as the Catholic Church for too long has dismissed the horrific behaviors that some of its leaders inflicted on children, so too the Christian Church has ignored for far too long the ways in which children and youth and families have been permanently and reprehensibly damaged by its words, teachings, and actions.

As I sit here, the review winding itself down with no obvious ending in sight, I find myself haunted by the simple words of Andrew as he pleads "Please love me," a simple plea that is truly at the heart of Southern Baptist Sissies.

Please love me... When we are different.

Please love me... When we disagree.

Please love me... When you are afraid.

And Jesus wept.

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic