‘Chrissy Judy’ is the drag buddy dramedy we all need right now

Thomas Flaherty and Wyatt Fenner star in ‘Chrissy Judy.’ (Photo courtesy Dark Star Pictures)

Drag is all over the news these days, and rightly so. After all, drag queens and kings are currently standing alongside their trans siblings on the front lines of the latest raging battle against the queer community by extremist bigots bent on legislating us all out of existence.

What’s particularly chilling about the current focus on drag culture as a nexus for all that – according to the haters – is “evil” about the queer community is that, in the last decades, it has experienced a surge in popularity that extends deep into the mainstream. This, of course, is why it’s being targeted now; with LGBTQ acceptance already the norm for a rising generation of Americans, the anti-LGBTQ conservatives are ramping up their efforts to push back the tide, and they are doing it in the most time-honored (and insidious) way possible – by positioning themselves as “protectors” of children and advancing the lie that being queer is somehow synonymous with being a pedophile.

Drag, of course, is an ancient art that has nothing to do with sex or sexuality; there’s something deeply human about it, an expression of some natural fascination with gender lines that, by acknowledging it, gives us permission to cross them – or, at the very least, to not take them so seriously. What most “outsiders” to the culture know about drag (and the people who do it) is limited to what can be seen in the performance – the “show” part of the equation, rather than the “human” – and that leaves a dangerous amount of room for projection and interpretation from anybody who thinks that any divergence from strictly drawn social norms is an existential threat.

That’s why the April 4 VOD release of “Chrissy Judy” feels particularly well-timed. The first feature film from writer, director, and star Todd Flaherty (also still enjoying a limited theatrical run) premiered at last year’s Provincetown Film Festival and went on to become a fan favorite at LA’s OutFest, New York’s NewFest, and multiple other queer film festivals across the circuit – and it’s easy to understand why. There have been plenty of movies about drag performers, but it’s hard to think of another one that gets past all the assumptions and clichés about drag (and queer life in general, for that matter) to connect with universally relatable experience as this one does.

Presented in black-and-white and overcoming its lower-budget indie production values with an evocative, elegantly cinematic aesthetic, it’s the story of Judy (Flaherty), who is determined to make a breakthrough into the New York drag scene as part of a two-queen act with his BFF and drag sister Chrissy (Wyatt Fenner) despite years of trying with little success. Now, on the eve of a potentially game-changing gig, Chrissy breaks the news that he’s leaving the act to move in with his Philadelphia boyfriend and settle down into a comfortable, domesticated life; forced to reinvent himself as an aging solo act (both onstage and off), Judy struggles to move forward, but he can’t quite let go of the severed connection that prevents him from discovering who he is capable of being on his own – and it doesn’t help that, without the balancing influence of Chrissy in his life, there’s nothing to prevent his “hot mess” appetites and impulses from getting in his way.

Most notably unique about “Chrissy Judy,” perhaps, is that it doesn’t treat its central relationship as if it were a “straight” one. It cannot be defined in strict terms of “friendship” or “love” but exists as a blend of the two, a complex mix of emotional attachments and desires that may not have an exact parallel in heterosexual experience. The nuances of this dynamic are played with exquisite delicacy by Flaherty and Fenner, whose chemistry together helps us all connect to our own memories of that one special friend who has remained close to our heart despite all the time, distance, and drama that may have ever come between us.

There are also excellent performances from Joey Taranto, whose charm helps to keep him likable as a potentially toxic new acquaintance that enters Judy’s orbit, and James Tison, who has a hilarious and memorable showcase role as “Samoa”, an old friend who invites him to a party and spouts buzzy-sounding mantras about self-manifestation at him.

It’s Flaherty’s movie, however, and he proves himself remarkably confidant and capable both as an actor and a filmmaker by delivering not just a fiercely authentic star turn that defies easy judgments and stereotypes, but a well-wrought, shrewdly observational movie about queer life that doesn’t pander to the sensibilities of the heteronormative world.

“Chrissy Judy” isn’t interested in presenting drag – or, again, queer experience in general – through a safe and sanitized filter; Judy (his “real” name is James, but he doesn’t let anyone call him that) is not exactly an inspirational figure, and his unapologetically hedonistic, self-indulgent lifestyle isn’t likely to win over any conservative homophobes. Flaherty’s writing and performance make no pretense of positive representation, and — just like its main character — his movie seems to delight in flaunting the very things that make the strait-laced crowd clutch their proverbial pearls.

That’s because it isn’t a movie made for them, though it’s certainly accessible enough for any non-homophobic viewer to connect with and even enjoy, but an authentic queer story told by a queer storyteller for a queer audience. There’s no need to be shy about its sex positivity, or ignore the importance of hook-up culture, or downplay the thrill of a sexually adventurous attitude by moralizing about promiscuity.

There’s also no need for it to mimic the tropes of hetero-centric cinema. Indeed, it derives considerable effect by setting up our expectations – learned from the nostalgic classics so long embraced by queer culture – only to undermine them, such as in a “meet-cute” romantic subplot that takes an awkward (and messy) twist, or any number of “big break” scenarios which fizzle out and go nowhere. These details play out with a good deal of humor, but they also underscore the ironic gap between the glossy sentimentality stirred by the film’s silver-toned cinematography and the world-wise savvy reflected in a plot largely driven by the unexpected curves that real life continually throws our way.

There are things about “Chrissy Judy” we could quibble over – do we really need that many shots of makeup and hair being applied and removed in mirrors to represent Judy’s continual evolution? Even so, it succeeds in getting past the “drag” of drag and telling a story about a core human experience – the changes in our loves and our lives as we continue to grow, and the challenges of holding onto a relationship as those changes pull us further apart – with tenderness, candor, empathy, and a warm-if-sometimes-caustic sense of humor. Best of all, it manages to do all this without sacrificing its own proud sense of LGBTQ identity.

In a time when so much queer entertainment is marked by a self-conscious effort to curate our community’s cultural experience for the world at large, it’s refreshing to see something that allows itself simply to be queer.

The National LGBT Media Association represents 13 legacy publications in major markets across the country with a collective readership of more than 400K in print and more than 1 million + online. Learn more here: NationalLGBTMediaAssociation.com

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