A couple of weeks ago, PJ and I watched The Houseboy, a 2007 movie written and directed by Spencer Schilly. It stars Nick May as Ricky, a young gay man who is romantically involved with a couple. As the movie begins, it is immediately clear that one member of the couple is very much interested in maintaining the threesome while the other partner is not.

The film’s plot follows Ricky as he house sits for the two men when they go away for Christmas holiday (he has his own apartment and doesn’t live with them).  He takes care of the rabbits, fish, and cats (sometimes), meets another gay guy his own age whose family lives in the neighborhood, and invites random strangers back to the apartment for drugs and sex. Here’s the trailer:

As the trailer suggests, Ricky is kind of lost. His life is full of drugs and sex, so much so that he’s lost touch with anything else. He’s in a relationship that isn’t going to last, and he doesn’t know how to relate to other gay men apart from sex.

For the record, The Houseboy isn’t anti-drugs or anti-sex. (To the contrary, the movie revels in male nudity and somewhat graphic depictions of gay sex.) One of the things that I like about the movie is that it doesn’t really judge Ricky for his actions; rather, it shows that he’s grown tired of the ways in which these activities are currently a part of his life. He’s come to want something more.

Because he’s so lost, Ricky contemplates suicide and tells each of his tricks that he’s going to kill himself on Christmas Eve. In each case, the trick dismisses the threat or to show any concern, failing to give him the kind of attention or connection that he’s craving. The one person who seems to offer that affection, Blake, the new guy played by Blake Young-Fountain, is also the one guy he doesn’t tell this to. The film ultimately becomes a will-he-or-won’t-he movie.

What stands out most about this movie to me is its unflinching grittiness combined with genuine sentiment. We see in graphic detail the drugs that some of Ricky’s tricks use, but we also see his loneliness as these drugs cause them to lose interest in him — if they ever had any besides having a place to shoot up. He desperately wants their love, but they hardly even see him.

Similarly, the film isn’t afraid of male nudity or even a couple of sex scenes, but these too leave Ricky feeling lonely and isolated. We see why he’d want to sleep with some of the men — a couple of them are really hot — but we also see how they too just use him for what they can get.

That ultimately is Ricky’s problem: he’s not a user. He can’t just use the gay couple for sex, nor can he just use his hook-ups for a quick high or orgasm. He wants genuine connection. One question that drives the plot is whether he will figure out how to achieve this connection with Blake before his date with death on Christmas Eve.

The movie succeeds or fails on Nick May’s performance. I think it succeeds. I hate movies that are about lambs to the slaughter. I also tend to dislike, though not as strongly, movies that are too sappy. May also gives Ricky some backbone, which keeps him from just being a doormat. One of my favorite scenes is partially in the trailer — Ricky fantasizes about calling the member of the threesome that wants a new “toy” to tell him that the other partner and he are running away together. Who hasn’t wanted to make a call like that at some point?!

The Houseboy hits the right balance between naturalism and sentiment in large part because of May’s ability to convey Ricky’s desperation. While he’s not a gym bunny Adonis, we can see why men from a wide range of backgrounds would be attracted to Ricky. We also see his disappointment when each of the men he meets fails to take his threats of suicide seriously. I don’t want to give the movie’s ending away, so I’ll just say that I thought it worked really well.

Overall, this is a really good independent movie. So often gay films are worse than stupid. This one rises above the usual fare to explore what makes this character choose to live or die.