'Akron': Sometimes the Simpler, the Better

Edmund Donovan and Matthew Frias in Akron (2015)

Had Akron went all-in on its simpler, piercingly authentic premise, it could have elevated itself into a truly singular film.


Director: Brian O'Donnell, Sasha King
Cast: Matthew Frias, Edmund Donovan, Andrea Burns
US Release Date: 2017-02-06

Over the next four years, the LGBTQ movement in America will face the ongoing threat of political setbacks from a hyper conservative White House and legislature, as well as a Supreme Court just two Justices away from revisiting the Rehnquist Era. In this context, same-sex romance movies will play a crucial role in reminding the general public as to how far the gay rights movement has come, and in making an emotional plea that stepping backwards in time would be a horrible thing. Akron, a small budget rom-com featuring a same-sex, male college couple, strives for this important objective, and almost reaches it, save for a few unfortunate pitfalls along the way.

The first third of Akron is breezy yet poignant. At the film's onset, Benny (Matthew Frias), a freshman biochemical engineering student at the University of Akron, takes a break from his rigorous course load to play some touch football. He catches the eye of another freshman, Chris (Edmund Donovan). They flirt and they hit it off. In most other Gen-Mil college relationship films, Benny and Chris's romance would be filled with expository commentary about sexual identity politics, or would almost immediately incorporate a provocative plot twist, but Akron distinguishes itself by inviting the audience to get to know Benny and Chris slowly. For a while, they are given room to breathe and establish themselves as fascinating characters outside of categorical relationship tropes.

Benny and Chris -- both smart, emotionally delicate, and family orientated -- are a welcome departure from typically leather-skinned college movie characters presented as 24/7 party phenoms. Chris is a soft-spoken and ruminative homebody trying to figure out the world on his own; on his first date with Benny, he laments about overly chatty Arts and Sciences students who are training to talk a lot about what little they know. Sure, Chris's outlook is superior, but as delivered by Donovan, it hits sympathetic notes of plangency and yearning. While Frias plays Benny with an inordinate amount of touchiness, his background story -- a Hispanic college student working tirelessly to make medical school while commuting from home -- is inspirational, and serves as a fresh outlier from the self-entitled, post-graduate cosmopolitans in Girls and other young adult shows.

But Akron limits its emotional reach by conceiving some of Benny and Chris's qualities from a Hallmark movie lab. Both look like magazine models; their skin is clear and lustrous, and their haircuts have a Manhattan salon ad quality. Each is a prototypical student with a pristine room and dutiful study habits. Even when Akron's dramatic tension rises ever so lightly, Benny and Chris remain remarkably level-headed; neither ever even flirt with failing an exam or perhaps partying a little too hard. Such idealizations, while fine for a heartfelt fantasy moment or two, may not be readily identifiable to discerning young adults who struggle with the social pressures of college.

Notwithstanding these limitations, Benny and Chris's relationship resonates dramatically for its intelligence and particularly given the film's unmentioned political context. Certainly, Benny and Chris's relationship emanate a warm and fuzzy feeling that these two will get married soon after they finish college. But will Benny and Chris be able to tie the knot in Ohio, or several other states? Just a few months prior to Akron's Seattle Gay and Lesbian film festival premiere in October, 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges had declared by a 5-4 vote that same-sex marriage is a constitutionally protected right. So for now, the answer is: Yes. But if Trump successfully appoints two Supreme Court Justices to the Court who agree with the dissenting minority in Obergefell, Benny and Chris may eventually have to uproot to not only marry, but to enjoy the legal benefits and protections marriage affords.

Any relationship that has to face this kind of uncertainty has an inherent dramatic arc, and Akron would have succeeded admirably if it sought to organically preserve it by letting the audience know more about Chris and Benny's struggles with college, and by extension, more natural relationship struggles any freshman couple is bound to face. Instead, Akron unwisely grasps at a half-baked, Saturday Afternoon Special conflict and never lets go of it.

As it turns out, Benny and Chris had unknowingly crossed paths while they were Kindergarteners at a Supermarket in Akron. At the parking lot, Chris’s mom accidentally hit Benny’s younger brother with her car, which led to his death. This scene, delivered as a flashback at the film's cold open, doesn’t rear its obvious melodramatic implications until Akron’s 40-minute mark, where Chris’s mom puts the pieces together during the couple's visit at her Florida home. Predictably, the next hour of Akron breaks down into a thinly construed, multiple-point of view melodrama where each member of the companions' families deliver expository lines of dialogue toward an inevitable reconciliation of the past with the present.

While Akron promisingly focuses on a same-sex relationship story absent heavy political proselytization, it infiltrates that very relationship with a schmaltzy plot line which torpors the film into worn, syrupy storytelling. Had Akron went all-in on its simpler, piercingly authentic premise, it could have elevated itself into a truly singular film. We'll just have to wait until next time, and perhaps use Akron as a solid road map as to how to tell a meaningful relationship story, and what to avoid in doing so.


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