A pure coming-of-age queer delight, National Anthem cements Charlie Plummer as a fiercely talented indie darling. Co-writer/director Luke Gilford brings a unique visual style to an intimate story: a veritable showcase of gorgeous cinematography, and breathtaking New Mexico scenery. This is a decidedly different take on the American dream. Sometimes, finding one’s tribe could be as simple as embracing their dormant side, and seeing where the road takes them. Finding one’s own identity through the help of others is a beautiful thing to see unfold. At once liberating and comprehensive, National Anthem depicts a stripped-down faux-Western, dipped in a textured story about falling in love.
Plummer (Spontaneous, The Clovehitch Killer) plays 21-year-old construction worker Dylan. Ostracized among his coworkers, Dylan is only in the profession to make quick money to support his unhinged alcoholic mother (Robyn Lively) and his adorable younger brother. As the film begins, Dylan shovels stones in the hot New Mexican sun. Gilford establishes early on that Dylan’s journey will be our central focus; as such, Plummer is given so much heavy lifting to do with this role. The complexities of Dylan’s character are what makes him unique. He represses parts of himself to put his family first, forced to grow up well before he was ready to be an “adult.” He doesn’t feel like he fits anywhere, nor does he have any friends to show for it.
The catalyst to break Dylan’s inner self free from its chains is Pepe (Rene Rosado), who carries the promise of steady work at his ranch, the House of Splendor. As Dylan becomes acquainted with doing odd jobs around the ranch and being around horses, a beautiful woman named Sky (Eve Lindley) catches his eye. Dylan does not even seem bothered by the fact that this ranch appears entirely queer, with mixtures of every combination of genders and sexual identities. He doesn’t even need to define his own. The more he communicates with Sky, the more the real Dylan begins to emerge. Though he does work, Dylan spends quite a lot of time gazing at Sky from afar.
Part of what makes National Anthem so unique is the film’s structure, unfolding like a slice-of-life picture where less patient audience members could argue that “not much happens.” However, just as with both Call Me By Your Name and My Own Private Idaho before it, National Anthem evokes a captivating mood of mesmerizing beauty. There is an inherent wholesomeness to the script, yet it never feels manufactured. Rather, Plummer’s natural charisma and the performances of relative newcomers make the movie feel genuine in a way that few do. The picture is just as much about self-discovery as it is about sexual identity, and finding where we belong in this crazy world.
How refreshing, then, that National Anthem refuses to depict the darker parts of queer cinema. There is not a gay bashing in sight. Dylan’s head certainly spirals the first time he gets put in makeup in public. A quiet shyness, but there never seems to be any shame associated with it. This is not a film where the lead struggles with repression for the entire runtime. We are allowed a window into his thought process, and what unfolds seems entirely organic, and true to life. Dylan finds his tribe among this eclectic group of people, frequenting drag shows and rodeos, and figuring out how to love himself in the process. At one point, Dylan describes himself as “boring” to Sky, wondering why she is so captivated by him; no one would call the character boring by the time we reach the final act.
A refreshing, immaculately-filmed movie about identity, National Anthem is soulful queer drama done right. Charlie Plummer’s best performance yet feels as if it was written expressly for him, and scene partner Eve Lindley truly draws attention, especially as their love story matures. Its characters are given room to breathe, and its intricacies are as charming as countryside horseback riding. Being transported into this film’s gentle worldview gives that hopeful message even more meaning: you are not alone.
Prepare to salute the National Anthem—this drama screened at 2023’s NewFest in New York City.