(director: John Henry Davis; screenwriters: William Mahone/from a story by J.B. White, John Henry Davis & Mr. Mahone; cinematographer: Mathieu Roberts; editor: Paul Zehrer; music: Brian Adler; cast: Brendan P. Hines (Peter Thompson), Joshua Harto (Scott), Kris Park (Alex), Elizabeth Banks (Rachel), A Martinez (Father Ed), Peter Onorati (Mike), Nathaniel Marston (Robert), Joshua Harto (Scott), Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Ogden); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: J.B. White/Chris Bongirne; Magic Lantern Inc./The Thief Company; 2001)
“I enjoyed this “coming of age” film, but for all the wrong reasons.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The kindest words I could come up with in describing the less than ordinary Ordinary Sinner, a well-meaning indie about gay-bashing, is that it was an amateur production. Everything about it was half-baked and unintentionally hilarious; one of those bad films that was so bad it was embarrassingly funny. The dialogue was trite; the background musical score was schlock and obtrusive; the acting was horrid; the plot was ill-conceived; and, the directing was unsure. Ordinary Sinner turned its big-ticket themes of homophobia, questions about religious faith, and friendship, into first a long boring sermon and then even worst it jettisoned the main theme of homophobia in favor of a murder mystery story. By doing that it trivialized whatever it attempted to say about how bigotry and violence are very real concerns for the gay and lesbian community, as it made the murderer into a mixed-up jealous youth who does not reflect the real threat gays are faced with on a daily basis across America.

The film opens in greyish b/w photography in Albany, as the gay young man Scott (Hardo) is taken away in a police car after killing another in a fight over a gay-bashing incident. His counselor Peter (Hines), an earnest young man studying at the seminary to be an Episcopal priest, is devastated that his counseling of non-violence for Scott has failed and decides to quit his calling and join his boyhood friend Alex (Park) on the campus of a fictitious college in rural Vermont (the campus looked like Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont). When in idyllic Vermont the film is in technicolor, but when there’s a flashback to Albany the color is washed out.

Peter moves into a run-down shack and gets busy painting it. When not fixing up the shack and working part-time in a pizza-parlor he’s helping out in the garden of the athletic local Episcopal priest Father Ed (A. Martinez), his friend and adviser who talked him into entering the seminary and of course is now located conveniently in Vermont. I guess Peter is just hanging out and is not yet a student, but I never noticed any student in the film ever carrying a book (who knows, maybe it’s one of those progressive colleges that doesn’t use books!). The small town locals keep busy by either going to the Episcopal church or to the pizza-parlor, while Peter and his friends swim in the quarry when not giving longwinded speeches to each other about the death of God.

A bouncy co-ed named Rachel (Banks), who is a close friend of Alex’s since their freshmen days, takes a fancy to the handsome but uninteresting and emotionally handicapped Peter (a closet case homosexual if there ever was one!) and gets more turned on when she realizes that he’s inexperienced in sex. She entices him to make love. This results in the film’s title as Peter declares that since he left his calling and has erred, he’s like everyone else — an ordinary sinner. A love triangle develops with Alex looking like the odd one out (he clumsily tries to get in on the action between the two lovers by offering Peter a drunken embrace, but is rejected). The dialogue is so banal among these teens that it would have been better if they didn’t speak, perhaps just a caveman grunt here and there would have sufficed. The line that made me scream the loudest, was Alex telling the others “You don’t piss away destiny.” Hey, you’ll get no argument from me. Though Peter’s line of why he chose this college is also a scream: “I was looking for someplace quiet.” Now that’s just a great reason for choosing a college. That boy might be confused now, but I think he’ll straighten out when he becomes a priest (But that’s just me talking).

Meanwhile on campus there are a series of gay-bashing incidents and the police do nothing. The incidents are attributed to a radical Christian cell, whose leader is a sleazy owner of a local garage.

The film’s highlight scene and the only one that had a shade of power to it, is when Peter’s parish priest is challenged in church by a literal-minded young worshiper named Ogden (Ferguson). He quotes from the Bible where it says in Leviticus that homosexuals should be put to death. Father Ed counters by using the church teachings to say all killings are wrong and then admits that he’s gay. He then asks the stunned Ogden if he would kill him. The film ably shows that the church has a choice of choosing either hatred for homosexuals or following its doctrines of tolerance, as both sides of the coin can be found in the Bible.

Instead of going with that flow, the film gets sidetracked with a murder mystery. The moralizing Father Ed, part saint and part hedonist, who self-righteously lectures Peter about sin over his affair but neglects to condemn himself for his affair with the pizza-parlor owner (Onorati), dives off the cliff at the quarry and dies when he hits his head on rocks that were just planted there.

John Henry Davis’s debut feature film leaves a lot to be desired. Despite a few sound ideas the teacher of film at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York, didn’t have a clue on how to put it together to make a coherent film. He also fell into the trap of making the characters into unbearable cliché figures and the unimaginative screenplay penned by William Mahone was dull. Also, the director could not draw the proper emotional responses from opposing scenes, as the priest’s tragic death scene reflected about the same flat emotional response as an earlier scene in a pizza-parlor where the workers are just gabbing.

I enjoyed this “coming of age” film, but for all the wrong reasons. It should be noted that someone liked this film, because it won the “Best Picture” and “Best Director” award at the 2002 SlamDunk Film Festival in Park City, Utah (Hey, Utah’s still part of America–right!).