dispatch: sxsw

How To Enjoy a Frat’s Bad Behavior Without Any Of Its Homophobia

Queerty SXSW correspondent Daniel Villarreal continues his festival coverage. This time he’s watching Brotherhood, a film about frats that’s anything but typical.

Kevin and Adam will do anything to join the Sigma Zeta Chi fraternity, even if it means robbing a convenience store for 19 dollars and 10 cents. It’s supposed to be a prank where no one gets hurt, but then Kevin gets shot. The fraternity can’t take Kevin to the hospital because if they do, the cops will get suspicious. But they can’t let him bleed to death on the couch either because if they do, the cops will get suspicious. Brotherhood then follows Adam and the fraternity as they commit one felony after another in an attempt to stay out of trouble. Instead of treating the brothers like heroes, director Will Cannon explores the societal implications of unchecked racism, privilege, and hyper-masculinity all while keeping the action horrifying, hilarious, and surprisingly homophobia-free.

The subject matter will definitely turn off some viewers. At so many points the film could have easily reverted to cliches about the misogyny, drunken antics, and frat-daddy mentality of Greek life. But Cannon keeps the subject matter startlingly fresh by giving power back to the very people that the fraternity tries to intimidate. The convenience store clerk and a fat girl humiliated early on in the film end up the only ones who can save the fraternity with their silence. It’s incredibly dark and bloody, almost like a horror movie, but it’s also very funny.

The director became interested in fraternities after hearing stories from some of his friends who had been members themselves. It took about a year and a half to write the script and three of his lead actors [Adam (Trevor Morgan), Kevin (Lou Taylor Pucci), and their unscrupulous pledgemaster Frank (Jon Foster)] are all real-life friends who spent three days before filming playing out the pledge-active dynamic.

According to Foster, the actors playing the fraternity actives had Morgan, Pucci, and the other “pledges” lay out on the lawn for a game of “Human Battleship” using raw eggs as bombs; they bound the pledges in Saran Wrap, covered them in condiments, threw them in the back of a truck and then drove them through a car wash; and they put the pledges in diapers and told them they’d have to poo or pee themselves before leaving. Morgan chose to piss himself.

As a result, the relationship dynamics in the film play out authentically. Foster makes a persuasive (if not manipulative) pledgemaster driving Adam to increasingly insane heights as he does everything he can to protect the group. And even though the fraternity commits horrific acts in its own self-interest, you’ll stay entertained and wondering if they’ll actually get away with it. It’s no wonder the film won the SXSW 2010 Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature.

The film deals in racism and misogyny that’s sadly true to life. And though the film has no gay slurs or characters, the film’s hero (Adam) gets manipulated for his close intimate bonds with his dying pledge brother, his pledgemaster, and the convenience store clerk involved in the robbery. The pledges get called pussies and bitches for not doing what they’re told, they’re made to use their masculinity as a weapon, and they get punished for showing empathy and compassion. That is, male-on-male intimacy gets seen as a threat throughout most of the film, but only because it challenges the institutional power of the fraternity. And that’s ultimately the film’s redemptive message.

Enron, the Catholic Church, the Bush Administration, and so many other corrupt “old boys clubs” have abused their privilege without punishment. But just because that’s “tradition” doesn’t mean they can exist forever without change (especially when they begin to get in their own way and interfere with the social order). Social institutions, just like people, have to take time to reflect on whether they’re still in keeping with the values upon which they were founded. In Sigma Zeta Chi’s case, it’s literally a life-or-death decision.

RATING: Four out of five paddles. Brotherhood is a surprisingly intelligent action film that defies cliches, refuses easy answers, and keeps you surprised and involved throughout. The issues have real-world relevance and the actors are easy on the eyes as well.

PS. Be sure to catch our conversation about gay media with Brotherhood’s executive producer Kevin Iwashina here.