Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard, in 'Humpday'

Dir. Lynn Shelton
(2009, R, 93 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

“Boys,” says Monica, after Andrew (Joshua Leonard) runs away, intimidated by the sex toys she and her girlfriend Lily (Trina Ward) have brought to bed for their intended three-way. Monica is played by writer-director Lynn Shelton, who utters the word with a bemusement towards masculinity that matches the rest of her film. Besides being perhaps the best title of a movie ever, Humpday is an interesting take on the paradox of heterosexual male affection — bromance without the romance — and has a frankness and intelligence about sex that reminded me of Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy.

The premise of Humpday comes from Hump!, an annual amateur porn festival held by Seattle’s The Stranger newspaper. It’s a real thing. I know it because I follow Dan Savage, a sex advice columnist for The Stranger who blogged the event. I think he’d like this movie; the characters in it could easily be real subjects from his call-in podcast — so maybe he wouldn’t like it. It opens with Ben (Mark Duplass) and Anna (Alycia Delmore), a happily married suburban couple whose house is invaded at two in the morning by Andrew, Ben’s old college buddy. Andrew has spent years as a vagabond free spirit; he’s the kind of guy who cozies up to people with “Dionysus” posted on their front door, and they’re not kidding.

At a wild party — booze and hookahs! — the Hump! festival is mentioned and, as often happens under the influence of psychotropic substances, someone has an brilliant idea: Ben and Andrew, longtime straight buddies, should film themselves having sex together! How bold! How unprecedented! It would be a shoo-in. (Someone should perhaps clue in these proud bohemians to the gay-for-pay phenomenon, though I suppose gay-for-free remains an untapped market.)

What starts as a ridiculous proposal made under the influence becomes a game of chicken where neither man wants to back down, and soon the hotel is booked and the date is set. Neither man is sure why he’s doing it, but it becomes clear that it’s more than just a dare to them.

The dialogue was improvised based on detailed scene outlines and then edited down to the best material. I didn’t know this when I first watched the film and marveled at how naturally the characters speak, how authentic the performances are, especially by Alycia Delmore, who has what could have been the thankless role of the disapproving wife but turns out to be the film’s linchpin. She grounds the story, stands in for the audience, and speaks volumes with a look. She has a scene with Duplass after she discovers what he’s planning that is mature, honest, and direct. It’s one of my favorite pieces of acting this year.

I wonder what this film would be like if it were directed by a man. Would it have worked? Would a man be able to look at the friendship between Ben and Andrew with the same clarity? I think it might have turned out more like I Love You, Man — a very good film but whose tone would be all wrong for this particular material. Shelton, who is neither a man nor man-hating, observes with charmed curiosity the details of male bonding. There’s a grappling scene during a heated basketball game that has the tangled intensity of a sexual liaison. The scene is not blatantly homoerotic — it’s too broadly silly for that — yet at the same time Shelton seems to wonder, isn’t there something more going on there?