There’s something to be said about an experience so specific that it can be felt universally by its viewers. Dramarama’s log line talks about a young man and his theater troupe preparing for their final murder mystery dinner party before they disband, going their separate ways after high school. You know, that tale as old as time? Well, it may not be specifically familiar, it may even seem like a fairy tale, but the hormonal desperation of teenagedom is something that will always (sometimes regrettably) ring true.
Dramarama’s curtains open on a scene scored with jaunty music where we see a young woman dressed in Victorian garb vacuuming the carpet. She lays out harmless snacks, Ruffles and sparkling Martinelli’s, and startles when the doorbell rings revealing the first guest. God bless it, it’s Alice straight from Wonderland!
The young woman is Rose (Anna Grace Barlow) dressed as an aged Mrs. Havisham, and Alice is actually Claire (Megan Suri). Soon, we’re joined by Sherlock Holmes, also known as Oscar (Nico Greetham), The Bride of Dracula aka Ally (Danielle Kay), and our protagonist Mr. Hyde/Gene (Nick Pugliese).
Rose is leaving for NYU, thousands of miles from their nondescript little hometown in Southern California, and is hosting the murder mystery evening for her friends as a final hurrah. Though the theme of the night is to solve the murder (hers, of course), it’s the other mysteries that are more intriguing. How will Nick reveal to his friends that he’s gay? What do JD (Zak Henri) and Ally know? Is Claire as innocent as she appears? And Oscar… what’s his deal?
Featured as an Official Selection at this year’s Outfest Drive-in, Dramarama is a complex character study wearing a teen movie costume and it’s brilliant. I had the pleasure of taking up a good portion of director Jonathan Wysocki’s time to discuss the film.
The Geekiary: Tell me about what gave you the idea for the film?
Jonathan Wysocki: I had tried to get a number of features off that ground that were bigger in scope and couldn’t. So I decided to just write something that I could crowdfund and make it on my own. I knew it was going to be a lot of work, and if it was going to be that much work, it better be something I loved through and through and I knew I loved nothing more than my high school friends and the sort of uniqueness of who we were. So I reread my high school diary-
TG: Oh no!
JW: I know! It was really difficult because we were theater kids and also very conservative Christians, just trying to figure it all out.
It’s this difficulty that adds heart and sincerity to the script and makes the movie instantly relatable despite the details. Jonathan said that he wanted to make sure to add in the cringe-worthy elements, that they existed in concert with the creativity, energy and intelligence of his friends. Really, of all teenagers.
JW: I knew the authenticity of what I was and what I wanted and who we were was in there somewhere. And that was the impetus, and jumping off point for the script.
I’ve always been fascinated by the reasons why people in their 40s write teen stories, and speaking with Jonathan has added evidence to my theory. There’s something about 40 that allows these creators to finally look back on that time with grace not previously afforded. In your 20s you’re still running away from growing up, in your 30s, you’re learning how to grow up, and in your 40s you look back and think… I did it. You made it through hormonal mood swings, constant doubt, helpless naivety, the most reactionary skin, and enough tears to drown your own self-esteem, and yet, you did it.
I told Jonathan that in 10 years all of these characters would reminisce on those days and think, “Of course Gene was gay, maybe we all were!”. Jonathan laughed, saying they definitely had blinders on, and it made me think; in 10 years they’ll realize, but in 20 years, they might just call and check in.
Jonathan mentioned his conservative Christian upbringing, and the movie also deals with faith and sometimes the loss of it. The kids are very vocal about their Christianity (Claire will attend Pepperdine, a private Christian university) and they drink sparkling cider rather than raid the parents’ liquor. But they also exclude Ally because she’s Catholic, and cast judgments on others. Gene does have a crisis in faith and explains to Oscar that it feels like the goalposts keep moving with their ideology, and how can he have faith in something that keeps changing? Oscar responds that faith never changes, it just is. The theme of being on different pages, perhaps even in different books, is one that’s consistent through the film.
TG: I saw it as a difference in motivation. Rose is leaving and Ally says, ‘She’ll be back in three months.’ It’s the dichotomy of those people, vs. those who think, I’m leaving to become a new persona and change and put the past behind! And when you have a group of people who have these different outlooks, you end up with pockets of separation anxiety.
JW: It’s kind of an unusual coming-of-age film. No one is losing their virginity or getting drunk. They’re not rushing towards change, it’s a late bloomer story.
TG: Some are ready to go and some are cool to stay where they are, while others are scared to change.
JW: They’re simply not ready.
We see this most blatantly in Gene who wants to come out, but is worried about his friends. Gene understands his truth, he wants to come out, but is it ever going to happen? His anxiety is palpable through the movie and we see the other characters react to it in unspoken ways. Although the focus is on Gene, there’s something magnetic about Oscar, leading you to believe that maybe he’s in the same boat.
TG: Is it fair to say that Gene is an analog of your experience?
JW: Not entirely. In my friends’ group there were three boys and the rest were girls. Two were gay and completely in the closet and the third one, I was completely in love with and didn’t know it. I thought both dynamics were interesting. I was also really interested in having two closeted boys who are at two completed different stages of the coming out process. [My best friend and I] were not on the same journey at the same time which created a different kind of pain, everything just happens in its own time, and it created an interesting tension.
Oscar is a character who embodies the phrase “fake it till you make it”. He’s carrying a pretty big card the entire night and we see him playing more than just the part of Sherlock Holmes. Nico plays him so beautifully, overflowing with emotion, completely oblivious and devious in equal amounts. He’s a beautiful boy that doesn’t know it, but has also never not had to rely on it.
That’s one of the most lovely things about the characters. You may not know them directly, but you know them. The characters aren’t archetypes, but they’re homages: the boy who is loyal, the girl who supports you no matter what, the cool guy, the bitch, the asshole, the girl who knows. The unintentional charm of a teen movie is the fact that being vulnerable to hormones makes you very stupid. And it means that things that may not be such a big deal are in fact, a VERY big deal. Things that shouldn’t feel so good, feel great; and things that shouldn’t hurt so much can be unspeakably painful. There’s a raw validity to being a teenager that is uniquely belonging to that era, and no matter what the puzzle pieces are, the picture always looks the same, chaos.
Jonathan explained that the meta aspect meets the theater aspect in a way, in that in theater, you’re always taking on a new identity and you use the identity to try out things you couldn’t in your real life. We see this played out in Claire, who has a very noticeable crush (to everyone but Gene) on Gene. We see her try to shed some of her naivety when in one scene she takes her top off on a dare and swims across the pool. By the end, the others are visibly uncomfortable.
JW: Claire sort of breaks the boundaries a little bit and she kind of loses her center and is adrift in a way because she doesn’t know who she needs to be in order to get what she wants. And I find that process in the teenage experience fascinating. For some people it’s painful to remember and uncomfortable. It’s not always a fun journey to figure out who you want to be.
I told Jonathan an anecdote about the “I’m in this photo and I don’t like it” meme that’s often used as a reaction on Twitter and Facebook. You see yourself, and it may be uncomfortable, but it’s the truth, and it takes a long time for some people to accept that.
TG: Everyone immediately regresses to this very staunch, very conservative thing. And once they shut down, she shuts down and it’s wild to look at and say, oh yeah… that’s what that is.
JW: It’s so crazy, that kind of group mentality and when you step out of your role, are you still going to be accepted? Gene wants to come out, but he’s so terrified of what the reaction will be, even with his best friends, the ones who love him the most. Will things remain the same, will they still treat me the same?
TG: Will they give him the benefit of doubt? Because ultimately he knows how they’ll treat him, we see it in their interactions with JD and to a different extent, the way Rose acts towards Ally. Gene wonders, Am I going to be elevated still in their minds? What went through your head that shaped Gene’s decisions regarding the reactions of the group?
JW: I feel like it would have been a mixed bag. I think one of the things that struck me as interesting is that it was easier for him to come out as agnostic to his faith-based friends than to come out as gay.
TG: Well, with agnostic, there’s hope.
JW: *laughs* Yes, exactly, yes. I think part of that was rooted in my experience in the early ‘90s. The homophobia was so outrageous in my community and environment. It was way more dangerous to be perceived as gay than anything else. Just the idea of watching him test the waters all night long and making the decision of whether to dive in was a tension I felt very strongly.
It’s a tension that’s felt through the movie and its intensity waxes and wanes as we deal with other reveals and situations throughout the night, but it’s still there and the resolution is just as real as every other part of this touching film.
The movie is tone perfect and the cast is no exception.
TG: How did you find this cast?
JW: The casting directors themselves were theater nerds, so as soon as they saw the script they said, We got this! They saw thousands of kids, and these five just fit together so seamlessly!
Jonathan says they feel like his own troupe of kids at this point, and mentions the core theme of friendship was something that emanated on and off the screen.
JW: They hang out and talk to each other all the time! Art imitates life which imitates art.
I was really impressed at how capable the kids were, especially playing teenagers in 1994, a year when most of the cast themselves were born.
JW: There was lots of what’s this mean? and how do you use/say that? There was lots of information to give on set.
TG: I absolutely loved it. There were so many references and I thought, you don’t know anything about this, but I believe you!
And I believed in them the same way I believed in the film to deliver a nostalgic, entertaining story filled with heart and loving pain.
Dramarama will be screening at a festival near you!
- Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival – Illinois – Sep 24-Oct 4
- Out on Film Atlanta – Georgia – Sep 24-Oct 4
- Nashville Film Festival – Tennessee – Oct 1-7
- Tampa Bay International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival – Florida – Oct 2-18
- Tallgrass Film Festival – Kansas – Oct 16-25
The film will be region-locked during virtual festivals through the end of the year and then hopes to find a wider release in the near future. Check out their website, for more details.
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