National Anthem – Raindance Film Festival 2024

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer: David Largman Murray

Director: Luke Gilford

Closing this year’s Raindance Festival is the bittersweet coming-of-age National Anthem about 21-year-old Dylan who finds himself drawn to the queer rodeo scene in New Mexico. Formerly believing that his self is set in stone, Dylan discovers that he can change his life after all. However, the message that ‘you can be whoever you want’ is undercut by a melancholy that acts as a foil to the queer utopia to which he is welcomed.

Dylan lives with his alcoholic mother and his younger brother in a one-bedroom wooden house in the desert. A casual labourer, he gets two weeks’ work doing jobs on a ranch called The House of Splendor which proudly flies a Pride flag at its gates. The house is full of fine-looking people – drag queens, trans men and women and gay men – living golden lives in the sun.

Dylan is intrigued, but it is Sky who catches his eye. They flirt as they wash down Sky’s prized possession: a horse named Cash. Soon, rather than moving haystacks or mucking out the stables, Dylan becomes one of the family, attending, then participating in, the queer rodeos that spring up in the ochre landscape. The glitter, sequins and make-up enthral him, giving him the confidence to stand up to his mother.

But it is Sky (Eve Lindley) who captivates him the most. Although she is partnered to Pepe, the owner of the ranch, Sky tells Dylan that they have an open relationship. What she does with Dylan, she says, is just a bit of fun. But for Dylan, the sex is more than that. He soon finds himself writhing in an orgy of semi-naked bodies on the desert sand but Sky is the one he desires.

Of course, The House of Splendor is meant to be a fantasy, but a fantasy to which only the most beautiful have been invited. All have perfect bodies, as they plunge into lakes or party at sunset. No one appears to work and all, apart from Carrie (Mason Alexander Park), who takes Dylan’s brother under their wing, have no cares in a world which seems to consist of rodeos, lip-synching and home-brewed mushroom tea. Their antics are filmed as if they are extras in a glamorous musical video, not surprising as director Luke Gilford has previously made videos for the likes of Troye Sivan and Christina Aguilera.

As the naive Dylan, Charlie Plummer is excellent, portraying a character who is never quite at home in either milieu. His growing sense of wonder as Sky applies blue makeup to his eyes in the middle of a shop aptly demonstrates his budding fascination with the strange people on the ranch who are striving to forge their own queer version of America. Their hedonistic lives provide an escape for Dylan. However, Dylan has to work hard to engineer this escape, signifying that the traditional American Dream is still to be attained through labour and pulling up your bootstraps.

Gilford’s debut feature is ultimately caught between parodying America and celebrating it, best shown in a late scene where a Black drag queen belts out the National Anthem. It’s unclear, as Dylan respectfully removes his stetson, how the audience is meant to respond to this hymn for a country that has made it very difficult for queer people to thrive.

National Anthem is screening at theRaindance Film Festivalwhich runs from 19 – 28 June in London

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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