(USA 2015)

Kudos to screenwriter and codirector Brian O’Donnell for his first film, Akron. After a great setup, he throws in a crazy plot twist and completely changes the trajectory of the story: what starts out as a sweet, almost too cute romance turns into something weird, dark, and potentially calamitous. The drama here slowly simmers to a boil and starts to bubble over. O’Donnell treats a gay relationship as incidental and not something strange; it’s a given from the outset. Plus, he makes the city of Akron a major character without becoming a cheerleader.

Benny (Matthew Frias), a student at the University of Akron, meets another student, Christopher (Edmund Donovan), at a pick up football game. They start dating, and Christopher invites Benny on a road trip to Florida to meet his mother (Amy da Luz) over sping break. While waiting for him on the morning they head out, Benny’s mother (Andrea Burns) mentions to Christopher that Benny had an older brother who died when they were both kids. Christopher realizes that he and his mother are connected to the tragedy.

As much as I liked Akron—and there is quite a bit here to like—it has problems. The opening scene, which takes place a decade or more before the story, is confusing; no hints are given to tip us off that we are in the past. The scene is shot in a grocery store parking lot with current cars and license plates. It threw me off, and it took me awhile to realize that this scene occurred a long time ago. It’s a critical piece of the story, so it should have been done more carefully. For the most part, the acting is good; however, Benny’s mother is a Latina-lite Stepford wife who ultimately comes off as one-dimensional caricature rather than a fully developed character. Burns overdoes the doting mom thing. Particularly annoying is her peppering her speech with basic Spanish words that everyone knows; it doesn’t ring authentic because she’s whiter than Christopher. Sadly, the story fizzles in the end; the resolution is too fast and too neat, and some of the characters—especially Benny’s father (Joseph Melendez) and sister (Isabel Rose Machado)—get lost in the melodrama. I could have done without the sensitive folky score.

Akron isn’t a bad film. It could’ve been a lot more interesting, though—it certainly has the elements. It ultimately doesn’t meet is potential.

(Akron-Summit County Public Library) C+

Cleveland International Film Festival


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