It’s nigh on impossible to tell a gay coming-out/coming-of-age story on the screen these days without occasionally lapsing into melodrama. The decades of such films that precede every new entry can’t seem to find new characters or new waypoints to mark the path from “confused” or “closeted” to “out.”
Telling such a story in the world of dance has a hint of “Haven’t we seen this, many times?” about it. But there are always exceptions.
“And Then We Danced” embraces the archetypal characters and hits every waypoint anyone who’s been watching queer cinema might expect. But set such a story in the macho former former Soviet state of Georgia, in the testosterone-soaked folk dancing of a Georgian National Ensemble, and you have our attention.
The homophobia of Vladimir Putin’s reassembling Russian empire was long state policy in the former communist utopia. And in Georgia, birthplace of butch butcher Josef Stalin, it never went out of style.
“What is Georgian dance?” an old master hectors young Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), interrupting rehearsals. “It is the Spirit of our Nation!”
It is “based on masculinity,” the company director (Kakha Gogidze) reminds him (in Georgian, with English subtitles).
The Western viewer may look the kid over — his delicate Chalamet features, and think “dancer” and leap to conclusions. But Merab has been in the company’s youth group since childhood. He has a duet-partner and girlfriend (Ana Javakishvili).
And his brawling, hard-drinking older brother David (Giorgi Tsereteli) is also in the company, just another one of the boys who brag about booze and brothels. So watch it with the insinuations, unless you want a fat lip!
It’s just that there’s a new dancer in the corps, Irakli (Bachi Valishvili). And even though they’re about to compete for an opening in the main company, they’re thrown together for the male duets that are a feature of Georgian dancing. Rehearsals, nights out drinking, a couples weekend out in the country where there’s more drinking and dancing to ABBA, and the next thing you know — WRESTLING.
This is no doubt a novelty in Georgia, or maybe even in gay cinema in Sweden (homeland of writer-director Levan Akin). In North America, it’s a gay romance cliche since the ’80s, a trope of such films since 1969’s “Women in Love.”
Fortunately, there’s more to “And Then We Danced” than the bare, over-used basics.
The impoverished home-life scenes have a cranky single-mom and grandmom, an estranged father and the timeworn “good brother/bad brother” dynamic. But Akin paints a vivid portrait of life in Georgia — gay life in particular — as Merab and Irakli keep their secret, but aren’t paranoid about their sexuality. They know that in the wider world, who they are is not stigmatized the way it still is in Georgia.
The reason there’s an opening in the main company? A dancer was caught, on tour, making out with a guy and beaten, only to come home and have his parents send him to a monastery “to make him normal.”
Irakli shows up for rehearsals with an earring.
“Where do you think you are! Take it out!”
But as Merab floats on the wings of new love, his gaydar kicks in and he sees his people all around him. Sure, some are funny, foul-mouthed transgender street hustlers. But if Georgia is 30 years behind Western Europe, their “acceptance” is a sign of progress, right?
The dance scenes don’t dominate the picture, but there’s enough here to show the performers have some chops. Gelbakhiani makes a compelling and sympathetic lead, Javakishvili a compassionate counterpoint even if Tsereteli, as brother David, is a more believable thug than dancer.
They and their movie may not serve up many surprises. But “And Then We Danced” still manages to tell an over-familiar coming out story with sensitivity, and a Georgian accent.
MPAA rating: unrated, sexuality, prostitution, alcohol abuse
Cast: Levan Gelbakhiani, Bachi Valishvili, Ana Javakishvili, Giorgi Tsereteli
Credits: Written and directed by Levan Akin. A Music Box release.
Running time: 1:48