Russell Brown's 'Race You to the Bottom' (2007)

Race You to the Bottom is a character study that delves into the sometimes complex feelings that can arise between straight women and their gay male friends. Besides issues of negotiating one's sexuality, Russell Brown's first feature film explores being in one's mid-twenties and trying to transition into the responsibilities of adulthood. However, neither Nathan, a gay travel writer, nor Maggie, a temp with a political science degree, has the maturity to handle those responsibilities, and they are drawn together by their need for romantic escape. Though Maggie has a steady boyfriend, his apparent depression prevents him from fulfilling Maggie's emotional and sexual needs. She is drawn to Nathan's charisma and sleeping with him assuages her insecurities about her body. For serial seducer Nathan, his relationship with Maggie most likely began as a standard flirtation, but as the film begins he confronts his increasing affection for her.

As insecure, vulnerable Maggie, Amber Benson turns in a beautifully textured performance. From her first appearance on screen she imbues the film with energy and warmth. Even as Maggie becomes nastier toward Nathan, Benson never loses the audience's sympathy, giving each of Maggie's actions an undercurrent of desperation. Maggie is one of a string of characters in Benson's recent work who are unapologetically sexual beings, and Benson continues to choose projects that address matters of sexuality.

Co-star Cole Williams' performance is solid though not as affecting. At times Williams' acting comes across as a performance, but that tendency may have been a deliberate choice given Nathan's manipulative nature. Despite Nathan's brash veneer, Williams is charismatic and compelling, giving the audience enough glimpses of Nathan's humanity to make him more than just a one-dimensional character. Williams gives Nathan a certain flamboyance but he never crosses over into "screaming queen" territory. I don't know whether Williams identifies as straight or queer, but he doesn't balk at his intimate scenes with other men as some young actors worried about their careers might. Though Benson and Williams click as friends and companions, they do not generate quite the sexual heat needed for some of the steamier scenes. Benson had better romantic chemistry with Buffy co-star Alyson Hannigan. Making a lot of a small part, Justin Zachary leaves an impression as Maggie's cuckolded boyfriend.

Though some of the directorial flairs distract, Race You to the Bottom is beautifully filmed. The color palette and photography give the film an almost nostalgic presentation, which contributes to the romantic fantasy world that Nathan and Maggie have created for themselves. Surprising for a contemporary film, Kristen Anacker's wardrobe is a highlight. Nathan's clothing projects his pretensions, especially the corduroy jacket and open-collar shirt he wears for most of the film, which I thought of as a slightly dated ensemble of an intellectual. Maggie's clothes reflect a burgeoning sexuality slightly hindered by a lingering child-like quality. My favorite of Maggie's ensembles couples a sexy red boatneck and short black skirt with a pair of canvas sneakers. I also thought Ryan Beveridge's score was a lovely addition.

The film's main weakness is the script, which is choppy at times and overwritten. Brown's writing doesn't demonstrate enough trust in his actors to convey some of the emotional beats. However, I do like Brown's willingness to linger in gray areas. During Maggie and Nathan's first big fight, both characters are portrayed as doing the right thing: Maggie for telling Nathan that she is in love with him and Nathan for refusing to say something insincere in response. The ending is also nicely ambiguous. And the flashback structure works amazingly well with the exception of one or two of the scenes.

Though not a perfect film, Brown's directorial debut is a solid effort and worth a viewing for the beautiful scenery and Amber Benson's performance.