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The first shot of Luster, which plays this Friday, August 16 as part of the Reel Affirmations Xtra series, depicts a mass of artfully entwined nude bodies — both male and female — in grainy black and white. It soon becomes apparent that we’re looking at the aftermath of an orgy. And it’s about as artsy as this spellbinding indie film about unrequited love and longing amongst a group of mildly punkish gay friends gets. And that’s a good thing.
Writer-director Everett Lewis’s film is not without style, but it is surprisingly entrenched in convention, down to a literal "Hollywood ending." Most of the character trajectories are predictable — particularly that of record-store owner Sam (affectingly played by Shane Powers), who has a long-suffering unrequited love for the movie’s blue-spike-haired poet protagonist, Jackson (Justin Herwick, beguiling and charming despite his efforts to be snarly and disaffected).
But the movie works despite its flaws — including a fumbled lesbian subplot that is a gratuitous nod to include women in the mix — casting a spell both erotically charged and genuinely sweet-natured. The best exchange in the movie occurs between Justin and a straight-laced gay boy (Sean Thibodeau) who is pathologically infatuated with the punkish skateboarder. It leads up to the movie’s most captivating moment.
At its core, Luster is about the longing that comes with love — a longing that can be brutal in its punishment or rewarding in its gifts. "Love is so confusing," says the hormonally-driven Jackson. "I think I’m in love with twenty new people a day." Director Lewis also attempts to dovetail themes of artistic inspiration into the work, but the results are somewhat stilted and narratively limp.
Lewis is unflinching — but remarkably tasteful — in his depiction of sex (which runs the gamut from tender and gentle to sleazy and sado-masochistic). And there is hardly a male cast member who doesn’t show off the full-frontal goods at one point or another. But Luster is a far cry from softcore porn. It’s just damn good independent filmmaking.
Luster plays Friday, August 16, at 7 and 9 p.m., at the Goldman Theater in the JCC, 16th & Q Streets NW. Tickets are $8 and are only available at the door. Box office opens at 6 p.m.