The Perfect Subplot in The Sitter

Posted on December 13, 2011


Attention Dear Reader,

Prior to reading any further I feel it only fair to warn you that a narrative thread in the film The Sitter will be discussed in detail herein and not a portion of it will be left unspoiled. If you have yet to see this film please do so. If you have seen it let us begin…

Landry Bender, Jonah Hill, Max Records and Kevin Hernandez in The Sitter (20th Century Fox)

In the critical lambasting this film has received, that I noticed both via its Rotten Tomatoes score and the encapsulated consensus that the site offers, what is missing is an insight. Granted a majority of the issues that critics have with the film are questions of taste. This is true of many comedies. Perhaps nothing is more subjective. However, I will not seek in this space to convince you that the film is funny, though I did find it to be very funny. Some also call out the film for not being very original. I cannot claim that this film re-invents the wheel.

What this film does brilliantly, which I will argue with any and all comers, is fold in a completely unexpected subplot based on the fact that it’s a comedy and the type of comedy it is. The term fold in is picked specifically to borrow the cooking term. In that vernacular it has a much more homogenizing context, somehow, in film it seems like it applies to putting something other where it does not belong.

In The Sitter Noah Griffith (Jonah Hill) is your typical slacker and atypical babysitter making it kind of a typical setup. A ne’er-do-well who in many ways has arrested development will see the truth of these children’s lives and connect with them in ways their parents cannot. Furthermore, these insights he has into their personalities and lives will better him.

The surprise comes in Slater’s subplot, it’s by far the most well-executed and most subtle of them all from start to finish. Slater, played with stunning adroitness by Max Records (whom you may know from his pitch-perfect performance as Max in Where the Wild Things Are) and countered beautifully by Jonah Hill’s usual potty-mouth with a heart of gold, not to sound snide but that’s how many of his characters can be pigeon-holed.

How does this all unfold?

We meet Slater as Noah does. He is arriving at the kids’ house and sees him in the living room lounging watching TV. The programming is a shirtless male gymnast set against a woodlands background. The thought that Slater is gay occurred vaguely to me but I dismissed it simply because the image on screen was so odd and because “that sort of thing just doesn’t happen in films of this kind.”

The second step in the progression of this subplot is the introduction, at the time as a literary ghost, of Slater’s best friend Clayton. He is merely identified as his best friend and someone who Slater is texting incessantly. Again no bells really sound at this revelation because two assumptions are made by me and likely the average audience member: One, kids text a lot and two, he’s getting responses.

The third step is where suspicions start being aroused. Slater isn’t getting responses and he’s distressed by that. However, the filmmakers deflect this for many by having it play into Slater’s myriad partially self-diagnosed manias. So we move on…

The fourth step is where it likely clicks for most audience members. In their wild night about New York Slater runs into Clayton (Alex Wolff) at a Bat Mitzvah. Slater catches him in a lie and with another friend. This creates the need for Clayton, prodded by his friend, to blow Slater off to his face and tell him he’s acting “weird.” Slater, of course, is devastated. Here is where I jumped the gun and finished the equation.

However, many times in a film you’ll know a certain event is going to happen and it’s how it unfolds that really matters. That is evidenced by this film.

What occurs in the 5th and penultimate step (The Sixth being Slater being at peace in the denouement) is just flat out brilliant. In a confrontation with his adopted brother, Rodrigo (Kevin Hernandez), Slater’s meds are thrown out the car window. He freaks out and makes Noah stop the car. He looks for them and shouts that he needs them because he has problems. As is the case with all the “Remedy Scenes” Noah doesn’t act out of character at all but wisely. It’s truly a tribute to Jonah Hill and his abilities that he can play a scene wherein his dialogue is flat-out blunt, button-pushing and confrontational but yet delivered sensitively and is precisely what is needed to get a desired reaction from his scene partner/opposite character.

Slater is told to his face he’s gay and in a film of this nature the magnitude of those two events alone is incredible. Firstly, the fact that another character recognizes it and points it out to him allows for the allusions to the It’s-not-a-choice aspect to be made naturally. Also, it allows the character in question to deny it before confirming it. The singular most moving moment in a film where anyone in their right mind would expect their to be none is when Slater, protesting too much, shrieks “I don’t wanna be a faggot!”

It’s also precisely this kind of scene that proves the point that I’d rather have society police language rather than the movies. The F-word in real life has become intolerable in the 21st century. That does not, however, mean that it’s been eradicated, which is precisely what makes it such a powerful choice here.

Not only that but you have in one short coming out scene, in a movie you’d never expect to see one in, the vocalization of so many truths about homosexuality and being closeted that it’s staggering.

Namely: No one wants to be gay, no one chooses to be gay, when one is closeted you almost want to be called out to relieve yourself of the burden, you and others around you think there’s something wrong with you, it’ll make your life more difficult, you’ll go through very hard times but it gets better and people get over it, coming out to your parents is the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do and so on.

I belabor the point about the kind of film it is because these kind of talking points are typically that they’re reserved for so-called Gay Cinema. The only problem with Gay Cinema is specifically that, it’s too much of a niche. There’s a lot of preaching to the choir. Even a mainstream hit like Brokeback Mountain can’t carry this message as well because first it’s about homosexuality and moreover it’s about repression thereof and the gay characters don’t receive the liberation that Slater does in this film. So many of his fears are allayed that you do hope somewhere a conversation like this is really happening between a parent or guardian and a child.

The sensitivity with which David Gordon Green, Jonah Hill and Max Records convey this scene is to be applauded long and loud. Typically, films branded as important are so because of their overall theme or their impact on cinema as a whole. While I enjoy it, this film may end up on neither end of the spectrum in time but what ought not be overlooked in an age when many with a social conscious are flat out saying that “It’s OK to be gay” and “It gets better” and other well-meaning statements that can be construed as platitudes by some, it is vitally important that the youth of this country are shown clearly and irrevocably that these things are true.

Fiction does not diminish a truth but rather can echo and amplify it more so than anything else. The true importance of The Sitter then cannot be measured in either category listed above but the reason it has importance is that it perfectly, in a social and aesthetic sense, includes a message in a film made for mainstream consumption and for they all need to be congratulated.

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Posted in: Commentary