What is it to be a 14 year old boy in a small farming community in Vermont, in touch with your feelings, that is to say, with the ‘feminine’ side of yourself, sensitive towards animals, a bit of a loner— your best friend is a chicken— with a need to be accepted by others your age or not so much older, who, in reward for your efforts, call you “chicken boy”, treat you with joking contempt and only tolerate you because you pay for the beers. You’re a square peg in a round hole and, to make matters worse, you are unable to suppress you’re burgeoning feelings for a bigger boy who appears to protect you. You are going to get hurt and to ward off the pain, you are going to violate everything that you are. Furthermore, your mother has just died and you were closer to her than anyone else in the world, and your taciturn, stoical father does not know how to deal with your weirdness. On top of all this your name is Duncan Mudge and you are played in a movie by a young Emile Hirsch, who, despite all the awful 'teen-flicks' he's done, happens to be a very good actor.
The film in question is called The Mudge Boy (2003), directed by Michael Burke - a low budget ‘indie’ film, made in a matter of weeks. In fact, so brief was the schedule for making the film that the actors didn't even have time to learn a proper Vermont accent before filming began. Hirsch's Californian accent stands out perhaps a little too much, though in every other way he’s just about perfect. In fact, the three main performances are all very convincing. Hirsch, as the Mudge Boy, gets into every corner of his character’s eccentricity, vulnerability, anguish and eventual distress, while Thomas Guiry as Perry, has all the unpredictability that his character requires - at one moment protective towards the weaker Duncan, the very next moment macho, aggressive, with a very short fuse. (My experience of repressed homos suggests that they open up to the possibility of desire one moment, then panic and slam the doors shut the next as Perry does when Duncan is kissing him.) Richard Jenkins plays the father’s perplexity at the odd behaviour of his son superbly. Obviously, they are both trying to deal with the mother’s recent death in their own different ways, but what, if you were a stoical farmer, would you make of a boy who deals with his loss by wearing his mother’s clothes and impersonating her at the dinner table? He means well by his son and is doing his best, but he just doesn't seem to be able get his head round Duncan's eccentric behaviour. The way the relationship between father and son is treated is one of the many strengths of the film. (Emile Hirsch's body-language in the scene where Duncan's father confronts Duncan over the fact that he "can't even get into trouble like a normal boy" is extraordinary; there is at the same time both submission and a rebellious truculence about it - a brilliant piece of acting on Hirsch's part, I believe, where he gets right inside his character's head and subconscious mind.)
The main theme of the film, I believe, is that there’s a price to pay if you’re different, a price which makes you want to conform or belong. Towards the end of the film, just before the climax, Duncan denies being “a faggot”. What would you do, if you were in his shoes, taunted by other boys who you’d tried to become friends with? Hold your head up high and say you were glad to be gay? He’s only 14 remember and desperately wants to belong. Life is not always so simple. And that’s also one of the strengths of the film. The problem with a lot of ‘gay films’ is their desire to bury the complexity of a character in order to make a political statement. Neither Duncan nor Perry - or indeed Duncan’s father - are simple. Take Perry for example. When Duncan is finally driven over the edge, Perry, who had been such a key figure in provoking his crisis, is suddenly disturbed and sobered by what Duncan does. Perry's feelings towards Duncan are much more complex than those of the other boys, who just want to sport with him, but how can he let them out in the open? In one scene, he plays the macho-man and rapes Duncan after persuading him to wear his mother’s wedding-dress, but in another when Duncan just wants a kiss, he brutally rejects him and calls him a faggot.
The supporting actors are Pablo Schrieber, Zachary Knighton and Ryan Donowho who play Brent, Travis and Scotty, the three boys Perry hangs out with. Beckie King and Meredith Hannerham play the two girls, April and Tonya, who hang out with the boys. April has little time for Duncan and thinks he’s a weirdo, but the more homely Tonya takes a liking to him, responds to his vulnerability and tries to protect him. Unfortunately, neither are on hand to moderate his four tormentors during the climax in which Duncan’s big secret, which he’d confided to Perry and which Perry has betrayed to the other boys, is finally out. His mother had taught him that you could calm a chicken by putting its head in your mouth. No doubt his other secret is common knowledge as well, namely, his feelings for Perry, so that when Perry taunts “Suck it like your mother showed you.” everyone knows that he’s not just referring to the chicken. In response to being baited in this way, a traumatised Duncan puts the chicken's head in his mouth and then bites it off. Why does he do it? Why does he bite the head off ‘his best friend’ in response to being taunted for being a faggot? Difficult to say. Is it a final bid to grow up by severing his links with his mother? One Christian website opined that now that he’d severed his links with his mother and especially after his father had embraced him at the end of the film, he would grow up normal like everyone else and put his homosexual feelings behind him.
Of course, this begs a very big question. Was his sexual attraction towards Perry, simply the result of his identification with his dead mother, like his penchant for wearing her clothes and impersonating her at the dinner table? Is it all just a question of ‘gender confusion’, as a result of her death, which, after his father embraces him in his distress, he will grow out of to live a normal, healthy, heterosexual life - as intended by God, of course? It seems a little reductive and pat. But then, what do you expect where people reduce the complex reality of the world to the Procrustean bed of their own religious concerns?
My own personal take on Duncan’s behaviour, for what it is worth, is this. The connection between biting the head off his chicken, symbolising his own repudiation of his sexual nature and his desire to belong, to be accepted by the other boys, is clear. It is a temporary rejection of himself whereby he violates everything that he is because it has got him into this mess. He’s in flight from himself, from ‘the faggot’ within. He is suffering from what people might call “cognitive dissonance”. Two sides of himself have suddenly come into head-on collision and turned him momentarily psychotic. After being embraced by his father, hopefully, he’ll put the pieces of himself back together, and he’ll grow up gay, because that’s what he is. He is too much in touch with his feelings for that not to happen, whatever crisis he’s going through now.
There is another aspect of Duncan which I believe should be taken into account and that is his guilelessness and complete sexual innocence. He has not only never had sex with a girl, as he admits to Perry, but when his feelings for Perry emerge, he doesn’t seem to dissociate them from any other aspect of his life. They seem as natural to him as breathing might be and it is only Perry’s reaction to them which makes him think there is anything wrong. The chicken, as well as being a connection back to his mother, is somehow symbolic of this innocence, particularly in relation to his feelings for Perry. So that, after he has tried to kiss Perry and been called a faggot for his pains, he starts to take it out on the chicken. In the bath the following day he unceremoniously pushes the chicken away from him. It’s as if the chicken had now come to represent that part of himself which he had come to reject - namely his own feelings, which he’d come to see as monstrous because of Perry’s reaction. He was now at war with himself and the first casualty of that war would be the poor chicken.
As for Perry, well, unlike Duncan, there is nothing temporary about his rejection of himself. In fact, he has all the makings of a life-long self-hating homophobe. He’ll go on fucking women to prove to himself that he isn’t a faggot. He’ll get married and probably physically abuse his wife as he himself is abused by his father. He’ll pop out as many kids as it takes and at the end of it all he’ll wonder what his life was about. When he gets older, he’ll be miserable and bitter. He already knows that it’s all fucked up. He says so to Duncan. In compensation, he sees Christianity as some kind of consolation, responding to Duncan's doubt in an afterlife by saying, “there’s definitely a heaven; there has to be.”. How else make sense of his fucked up existence and give it some kind of meaning? And it is precisely that belief that will reinforce his repressions and homophobic responses to people like Duncan probably for the rest of his life. (This judgement could be very wrong, of course. Perry could wise up to himself in the end. His reaction to Duncan's act of biting the head off the chicken suggests this possibility, in fact.)
One other aspect of the film which might produce ground for speculation is the paucity of material in it with any real connection to contemporary everyday life. There’s the truck Perry, Brent, Travis and Scott drive around in with its ominous throb, which you usually hear before its visual appearance, there’s the tractor and the small truck belonging to Duncan’s father, there’s the truck belonging to Perry’s father, there’s Duncan's old bike which he inherited from his mother, but beyond these props there is very little to remind you of life in 20th. Century, let alone 21st. Century America. Duncan, for example, does not seem to go to school. There are no signs of computers. TVs and radios are conspicuous in his father's house only by their absence. The rooms inside of the house look like stage-sets. And there is something almost arcadian about the greenery of the surrounding countryside. It seems that the only concessions the film makes to contemporary life are those which are absolutely essential to the story itself or to work on the farm. In this sense, it is refreshingly ‘minimalist’ and uncluttered, suggesting an archetypal rather than realist background to the action which takes place in the film. This, I think, is important as it situates the innocent Duncan in his own ‘Garden of Eden’ from the very beginning. A city wouldn’t have served this drama at all. In a city, Duncan would have grown up much more streetwise about his feelings for Perry. He would have known they were ‘queer’ right from the start and therefore would have been much less likely to let them take him by surprise and undo him. If there is a cinematic equivalent of the Et In Arcadia Ego genre in painting, this film belongs there. Such a coming of age drama could not have taken place in any other environment.
Finally, the $64,000 question after seeing this film is what will happen to Duncan after the credits have rolled. My bet is that he will suppress his homosexuality for a while - at least until he’s more sure of himself. At the same time, he will, I hope, avoid his former ‘friends’, although, under the circumstances of living in a small farming community, that won’t be easy. I think it’s unlikely that he’ll follow in his father’s footsteps and become a farmer. Physically, he’s just not cut out for it. Perhaps, he will migrate to a city where he will probably find more opportunities to be who he is. And he’ll eventually grow old and die, like everyone else. But I suspect that, meanwhile, he’ll be much happier than Perry, much more in tune with himself. The first half of that Gnostic dictum - “If you bring out what is within you, what is within you will save you.” will apply to him, while the second half, “If you do not bring out what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.” will apply to Perry. So all in all, the winner will be Duncan, while the losers will be those who refused to accept him and singled him out because he was different.