Dir. John Cameron Mitchell
(2006, Not Rated, 97 min)
★ ★

Shortbus is like Rent with less AIDS and more complaining. Also less singing. It tracks the interconnected lives of young, modern New York City bohemians as they contend with emotional problems and complicated love lives — self-complicated it seems, more often than not. Written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), it’s famous for its depictions of graphic, penetrative sex, but while it might at first seem to be about liberation, it’s really about hangups, shifting quickly from campy romp to pretentious-depressive gloom. Mitchell seems to have something very important to say about love and sex, but it gets lost in a morass of existential angst.

Lee Sook-Yin, as Sofia

We meet the characters in the throes of sex. Sofia and Rob (Lee Sook-Yin and Raphael Barker) have the most athletic approach and appear to have done advanced course work in the Kama Sutra. James and Jamie (Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy) are live-in boyfriends; before Jamie returns home, James masturbates and then weeps on the floor while a peeping tom watches from an apartment across the street. (The peeping tom has a telescopic lens, but he doesn’t need one; given how recklessly James and Jamie exhibit their sex life in front of their curtainless window in the middle of the day, I bet property values across the street would plummet if they ever moved.)

Instantly the most interesting character is Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a dominatrix who regularly disciplines a spoiled rich kid. At first she seems to be the only character who treats sex as frankly as the film does, and there’s a satisfying moment a few scenes in when she rudely laughs at a group of women discussing the feeling of an orgasm. She’s sexually liberated in a way the others only claim to be; she doesn’t need affirmations and can plainly recognize the phoniness of women discussing sex like it’s a kind of new-age spirit cleansing. But eventually even Severin falls victim to Mitchell’s abundance of crises, revealing that she’s never formed a close relationship with anyone, and so the woman who might have been an invaluable asset to the screenplay, snapping the other characters out of their self-indulgent funks, falls into one of her own.

The characters all frequent a regular underground party called Shortbus, a hangout/sex club for gender outcasts and adventurous free-love revelers. This is a fascinating setting for a film, a chamber of id under the city that never sleeps, where latent desires seem to manifest themselves all at once. But the film follows the most dreary of its attendees, especially James, a Zoloft-popping amateur filmmaker who believes he’s incapable of receiving love. This storyline, straining the hardest for psychological depth, falls flattest; the banality of the characters becomes more pronounced the more important Mitchell tries to make them, and his sexually liberated film ends up feeling peculiarly stifled. Sex becomes a function of urban ennui, and Mitchell doesn’t have characters strong enough to earn it.