Not So New
Pity Emerson Thorsen (Aaron Weber). He’s 13 years old, living in the secluded, wintry wilds of Nova Scotia, experiencing his first sexual desires and nocturnal emissions, and faced at every turn with hippie parents, Roger (Robert Joy) and Kaya (Rebecca Jenkins).
The family takes naked saunas together, and Roger and Kaya are just thrilled about their son’s first wet dream: she declares it “wonderful” and he counsels that more masturbation will mean fewer of them. Emerson is clearly exasperated by their intrusiveness, despite their good intentions, as he tries to figure out for himself what this advent of sexual maturity means. For all her enlightened humanism, faced with her son’s coming adulthood, Kaya recognizes that perhaps their Thoreauvian unconventionality and home-schooling haven’t been all good. Emerson’s math scores suck and his social skills are awkward at best. If he’s to go to college, he’d better buck up quick. And so it’s off to the local public school for the first time. Walking into this bleak Canadian institution, Emerson explains to himself, “Harvard, here I come.”
Middle school is a horror show for anyone, but it’s worse for Emerson, with long pretty hair, effeminate manner, and a penchant for literature that inspires English teacher Mr. Grant (Daniel MacIvor) to teach the class the collected works of Shakespeare. It’s hardly a surprise that the boy is soon the victim of school bully Todd (Drew O’Hara).
What is, I guess, “new” in Whole New Thing is the shifting friendship and eroticism that develop between Emerson and Mr. Grant. In his teacher, the student finds a sympathetic non-parental figure who encourages his intellectualism and offers serious critiques of his apparently estimable writing skills (at the opening of the film, we see him finishing the last page of an illuminated Tolkein-esque fantasy). Mr. Grant is inspired by Emerson’s precocity, finding his love of teaching and literature revitalized, and while he strongly rejects the sexual charge between them, Mr. Grant also clearly acknowledges it.
The film’s recognition of the sexual tension underlying the mentor-mentee relationship is refreshingly honest. As is Whole New Thing‘s prolonged attention to the sexuality of children, and especially queer children like Emerson, in a cultural context that denies children under arbitrary ages of consent have any sexual desires or experiences. It is unfortunate, then, that Whole New Thing capitulates to neo-liberal logics of tolerance and privatization in its elaboration of queer sexual agency and desire (though perhaps it should be no surprise, as Emerson’s hippie folks represent the boomer generation responsible for that rhetoric).
When Mr. Grant realizes Emerson is crushing big-time on him, the teacher tries to put a halt to it by letting Emerson know he can come out to him, giving him a brochure titled with “Gay and OK.” Emerson tells him that he’s “not gay.” In other words, his love is not “gay” or “straight,” but a function of the object of affection. He wants to find that person with whom he shares some sort of perfect communication, here Mr. Grant. It’s a typical sort of tolerance that eschews embodied or resistant identity politics in favor of stereotypical heteronormative romance. “I’m not gay, I just happened to fall in love with a man,” or so the story goes.
This is not to say that I would want this 13-year-old rural Canadian “not-gay” boy to spring forth from the snow as a radical queer activist. Rather, the film privileges Emerson’s “normal” queer desire over more complicated and fleshy varieties.
At the same time, Don Grant’s queer sexuality is not as “straightforward.” We learn that he moved back to this small unnamed town to care for his ailing mother after he finished college, and somehow never left. He’s single and gay, and while there is a nebulously defined long-term lover in the past, his sexual life is currently relegated to anonymous public encounters in a roadside bathroom. For the most part, Whole New Thing presents these acts without much judgment; they occur in a clean, well-lit place and are quite matter-of-fact. Until Emerson follows Mr. Grant to the bathrooms.
As Grant exits, Emerson complains that he can “have sex with someone [he] doesn’t even know” but “won’t make love” with Emerson. And there it is, the difference between having sex and making love. Sex is “bad,” while the “love” that is imagined and made by Emerson (in fantasy if not reality) is committed and earnest, and blah, blah, blah.
Emerson’s dedication to such heteronormalizing presents a familiar bourgeois subjectivity. To be accepted into straight terms, based in capitalist conjugality, is the aim of mainstreaming Gay and Lesbian politics of the past 20 years. Despite the promise of its representation of queer childhood, and even its queering of student/teacher relations, Whole New Thing ends up telling the same old story.