Tripping on the Open Road

Miles Swain's admirable first feature explores gay relationships with equal amounts of insight and heart

Sep 10, 2003 at 4:00 am
Director/writer/executive producer Miles Swain's first feature isn't so much a "coming-out" story as an awakening.

The Trip is a film with a mostly unknown cast, with tremendous acting and attention to detail. The script packs a punch, too -- it's loaded with such quips as "the homosexual lifestyle has two ages: young and 29."

The on-again-off-again love story of neurotically uptight Republican journalist Alan Oakley (Larry Sullivan) and illegally sexy gay-rights activist Tommy Ballenger (Steve Braun) unfolds against two decades of gay history, including the infamous 1977 Anita Bryant "Save Our Children" campaign (which had nothing to do with orange juice). Swain begins his film with Alan and Tommy's 1973 chance meeting. Tommy realizes his "date" with Alan is a guise for an interview, with dinner cooked by Alan's ditzy girlfriend Beverly (she's stunned to hear Liberace is gay). Alan and Tommy eventually get together, of course, then break up, and then find themselves reunited years later for a fateful Mexican road trip. The men's story is mostly hilarious, always realistic and only rarely melodramatic. Swain doesn't soapbox, focusing instead on a genuine love affair between two people who need each other.

The eras in the film are noteworthy characters themselves. Not so long ago, Alans and Tommys in big cities were paving the way for the acceptance now enjoyed in such conservative places as St. Louis. We see Tommy handing out petitions in a park and being told, "Pervert! Shame on you!" among other comments. Gay political strategist David Mixner, on whose character Tommy is loosely based, makes a cameo in the film.

Meanwhile, Alan's military father is in denial, refusing to accept that his only son might be gay. So, by the way, is Alan. However, finally forced to realize he is drawn to Tommy, he lives happily with him -- until a jealous would-be lover outs him as the author of an anti-gay book he wrote years before. Alan and Tommy break up, and Alan lives in misery until his beautiful, sloshed mother (played by Jill St. John) and Beverly barge in to rescue him.

This is actually a movie of evolution. Over a thirteen-year period, the main characters evolve into people they never thought they could be. With Tommy's love, Alan learns to accept what he is. Tommy -- the strong one -- allows Alan to grow and to cover for him when he becomes ill. Beverly morphs into a true friend, and Alan's mother, the fun parent we all wish we could have, toughens up when her son needs her most.

One can't accuse Swain's first feature of being entirely original; there are obvious overtones of Midnight Cowboy, Kissing Jessica Stein and even The Graduate. Still, it's richly woven together and contains a soundtrack mirroring the time periods and the characters' lives. In addition, The Trip feels respectful, without resorting to Priscilla-Queen-of-the-Desert-style over-the-top gay stereotypes.

The Trip is well worth the journey. Although Alan and Tommy realize they are different, they also come to see that, in the words of one character, "people fear what they don't understand."