Review by Sean Boelman
Luke Gilford’s directorial debut National Anthem debuted at SXSW in the spring to almost universally positive reviews, but little fanfare. Now, it is making a reappearance on the fall circuit, and audiences are finally getting to recognize the warm, restrained beauty of this poignant drama.
National Anthem follows a construction worker who stumbles across a troupe of queer rodeo performers in his search for work, only to find something else within him in the process. Gilford’s film is the type that rewards patience. With the occasionally meandering pacing, it’s often easy to think that this could have been tightened into a short, but Gilford along with co-writers Kevin Best and David Largman Murray manage to keep adding meaningful new layers to the story.
Charlie Plummer has never been better than he is here. Plummer is known for performances that are quiet and somewhat withdrawn, and while that usually results in a feeling of awkwardness, it works perfectly in the context of the role he has here. Even in the more melodramatic beats, such as the subplot about his relationship with his mother, Plummer manages to show an incredible amount of restraint.
It’s easy to have incredibly mixed feelings about Eve Lindley’s character. Although Lindley’s performance is fantastic, the character essentially falls into the archetype of the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" as the protagonist’s love interest that pushes him into his awakening. And while this trope is generally condemned for its objectification of women, the fact that the character is genderfluid does bring a unique (if not always effective) perspective.
However, the protagonist’s storyline is so compelling and nuanced that it’s hard not to be won over by the movie. Although this is essentially a coming out story, it’s refreshing to see National Anthem take such an introspective approach — where the obstacles are not homophobia or prejudice, but something much more quiet and contemplative.
Gilford clearly has such a love for this band of characters, which should not be surprising considering that in his work as a photographer, he had already gotten a chance to get a glimpse into the world of the real International Gay Rodeo Association. While Gilford easily could have painted this culture as strange and otherworldly, he presents it with an undeniable and affecting warmth.
It should also surprise no one that the feature debut of a photographer is visually stunning, but Gilford clearly has an extraordinary eye. Katelin Arizmendi’s cinematography beautifully captures not only the Western landscapes, but also the more surrealist sequences of the film that lend it an airy, dreamlike quality.
National Anthem is not a perfect movie, but its quaint coming out tale feels very authentic and unique. Luke Gilford is clearly a talent to watch in the director’s chair, thanks to both his command of the visual medium and his ability to get exceptional performances out of his actors.
National Anthem screened at the 2023 edition of NewFest, which runs October 12-24.