Bruce La Bruce’s new film, Gerontophilia, is a tender, slender movie about same-sex intergenerational love that is shocking only in being so unshocking. This is the most mainstream work yet from the Toronto writer and “queercore” director of art-porn films, and the indie zombie feature, Otto, or Up with Dead People. Gerontophilia is conventionally well-made, avoids onscreen sex and has the kind of saucy sentimentality that made a hit out of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – though before you drop your grandfolk at the multiplex, you might check on their feelings about wrinkle fetishists.
The gerontophiliac protagonist of the film is a handsome, pouty, 18-year-old Montreal kid named Lake (Pier-Gabriel Lajoie), who’s into skateboarding and drawing and, as he gradually discovers, really old guys. No, not rich old guys who can cover his phone bills and college tuition. He’s aroused by what time and gravity can do to a body, and perhaps, by the proximity to mortality.
Age-disparate romance movies are nothing novel (Sabrina, Sunset Boulevard, Harold and Maude, An Education). The same-sex version was explored in Steven Soderbergh’s 2013 HBO movie about Liberace, Behind the Candelabra. What’s different in Gerontophilia is that it’s a celebration of Lake’s benign kink.
The first hint of Lake’s predilection, after the title, is revealed when his gaze lingers on a weathered-looking crossing guard. Later, while working as a lifeguard to raise some college tuition money, he’s obliged to give an elderly swimmer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation – and up springs an awkward protuberance in his trunks in front of surprised spectators.
Hey, he’s 18 and these things aren’t quite in control. Besides, he has a political girlfriend. Desiree, played by Katie Boland (whose vivacious energy mostly overcomes her character’s surfeit of quirk). When they make out, Desiree approaches orgasm by calling out the names of women she considers “revolutionary”: Lizzie Borden, Aileen Wuornos, Ulrike Meinhof.
But Lake shows little desire to rock the bedsprings, never mind the political order, and the poster of Gandhi over his bed is less about the great man’s politics than his bald head and age lines. Possibly Lake is in traumatized reaction to his overbearing, hard-drinking, oversexed single mother (Marie-Hélène Thibault), though despite her faults, Mom helps Lake land a job at a nursing home in his gap year.
His epiphany comes with the first sponge-bath he gives a patient. The object of his gaze, and sponge, is a man named Melvyn Peabody (Walter Borden), an arch and sensual octogenarian who used to be a theatre actor, now pushed about by impatient staff. Melvyn and Lake hit it off. They share martinis and games of gin rummy and nap-time canoodling.
Desiree, after overcoming her initial hurt feelings, proves surprisingly supportive of Lake’s grandpa fetish, which she finds, of course, “revolutionary.” More conventionally, Lake’s mother and the nursing-home staff are appalled, though instead of reporting Lake to the authorities as you might expect, they strap down Melvyn and top up his meds.
At this point, Gerontophilia, which has wobbled between coming-of-age sincerity and naughty humour, jumps the narrative track and loses its impetus. Lake decides to liberate Melvyn and fulfill the older man’s wish to visit the Pacific Ocean, and we start on another odd-couple road movie. While Melvyn charms convenience-store clerks and bartenders by playing the old dear, he also turns out to be major gay bait, reducing Lake to a jealous pique.
None of this really goes over. The problem is the gap between the two actors, not in age, but in ability. Pier-Gabriel Lajoie, with his recitative, halting, French-accented English, barely keeps up with Borden’s appealing turn as a cunning old dearie. The film seems to be about the wrong character.
Gerontophilia has something in common with those Oscar-bait, aging-star movies – Frank Langella in Starting Out in the Evening, or Peter O’Toole in Venus – in which an old artist’s waning years are revivified by the unexpected gift of young flesh. Those films were script-intensive character studies, while Gerontophilia is more of a sketch, with the characters’ inner lives left to the viewers’ imaginations. For all the film’s abundant use of music and slow-motion camera work, we’re left with what feels like a mildly amusing, slightly poignant anecdote that should have found much more to say about love in the pallid night-light glow.