Left to right: Megan Suri as Claire, Nick Pugliese as Gene, Anna Grace Barlow as Rose, Danielle Kay as Ally, and Nico Greetham as Oscar in Dramarama.
As the summer of 1994 draws to a close, a group of five drama nerds get together for one last sleepover before they scatter across the country to different colleges. (This isn’t just any party, though: it’s a Victorian literature-themed murder-mystery party. These kids go all out.) Their fun is interrupted when the pizza is delivered by JD (Zak Henri), a dropout from the same high school who is as world-wise as these “bubble babies” are naïve. When JD is asked to describe each of the quintet with a single word, his choices dig at the heart of how unprepared each is for the real world to come. But the one that cuts the deepest is his choice for quiet, nervy Gene (Nick Pugliese): “clandestine.” Gene, you see, is gay. JD knows this, but none of the others do, and Gene is torn between wanting to reveal his true self to his best friends and fear that these sheltered, suburban, super-religious kids will reject him. But as the night wears on, it appears that Gene isn’t the only one at the party keeping things bottled up inside.
Dramarama is clearly a labor of love for first-time feature writer/director Jonathan Wysocki, who crowdfunded the film via Kickstarter and closes the credits with a shot of his own high school theater crew. Setting the movie in his own graduation year, he’s able to pack it with authentic period details. (The dance interlude inspired by They Might Be Giants’ “I Palindrome I” feels particularly spot-on for this group of geeks.) But it’s not just the setting: it’s the characters that really ring true. Broadway baby Rose (Anna Grace Barlow) plays host and is always “on,” her emotions always shouted to the back of the balcony whether they’re real or just for show. Prim Claire (Megan Suri) is the most wholesome of the bunch (JD’s word for her is “puritanical”), but is conflicted by her long-suppressed crush on Gene. Her opposite is opera singer Ally (Danielle Kay) who, unlike the others, is always ready to break the tension with a sexual joke or an upraised middle finger; she’s also by far the most perceptive of what her friends are trying to hide. And dim-witted, good-natured Oscar (Nico Greetham) is headed to UCLA to hit it big in movies but who, with his odd descriptions of his supposed long-distance girlfriend’s breasts (“Like warm sandbags!”) and his impromptu wrestling matches with Gene, might just be gay as well.
Gene’s struggle to come out to his friends is the film’s central conflict, but it’s hardly the only one. Dramarama, at its heart, is a story of five friends who know each other better than anyone yet, in some very deep ways, don’t know each other at all. Bottled up in a house together for a night of high emotions, of endings and goodbyes, eventually they stop being polite and start getting real. It might seem unrealistic for a whole group of people to come of age, or at least finally settle publicly into the person they’ve already become inside, in the span of a single night, but it’s believable thanks to Wysocki’s lived-in script and the naturalistic performances by his fantastic ensemble of unknown young actors. (Pugliese’s sensitive Gene and Kay’s sarcastic Ally mark them as two actors in particular to keep an eye on.)
Teen movies about that one night when everyone grows up are a dime a dozen. Dramarama explores the same territory but aims much higher. There are a few moments when you can feel Wysocki tugging on his characters’ strings to summon up conflict, but they’re rare. On the whole, Dramarama is a heartfelt, honest portrayal of those first staggering steps into adulthood, perfect for viewers getting ready to take those steps themselves but just as appealing to those of us who did so around the same time as Gene and his friends. | Jason Green
Dramarama is screening as part of this year’s Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival and is available to stream from November 13-15 and 20-22, though only in Missouri and Illinois. General admission tickets are $10, or $8 for Cinema St. Louis members and students with valid ID. To purchase a ticket or watch the trailer, click here. Learn more at the movie’s official website, dramaramathemovie.com.