CIFF: Boys Are Us, by Aaron Pinkston
The Swiss sex-drama Boys Are Us employs a pretty standard plot, but stands out with a pretty incredible narrative trick. In the film, 16-year-old Mia, an attractive yet plain girl, has her heart broken by an unseen boy who dumps her after she expresses her undying love. While endlessly distraught, her more sexually experienced older sister convinces her to hatch a scheme to get back at the entirety of the male gender. Mia picks out a random guy on a local dating site in order to dupe him into loving her, with the plans of ditching him. We’ve seen this type of plan before, and it usually doesn’t quite go so well. Typically we see this type of plot in a bawdy and audacious comedy, but Boys Are Us is a pretty serious take on the subject. What Boys Are Us does to spruce up this tired story is pretty remarkable, and your ultimate thoughts on the film will hinge on how you view this strategy.
Boys Are Us tells the same story three times, with three actors playing the same character, the boy chosen for Mia’s dubious plan. So, plainly, we see many of the same scenes three times with a different actor. This is pretty interesting in a comparison on how scenes can play out differently just through a different performance, but the narrative also intertwines her interactions with these three men, giving us a bit more plot information between each of the scene iterations. Initially confused by the structure, it settles in nicely and provides life to the narrative. As this cyclic structure becomes clear, the film begins to blend them in together, and there are wonderful moments where the three actors all appear in the same sequence, rotating through the cuts.
In hiring three different actors to play this one role, my first thought was this could give us three different types of male representation, but that really isn’t the case. The three young actors certainly look different, would never be confused for each other, but none of them are the macho, heartbreaker type. The character they play turns out to be shy, slightly-troubled and on the same wavelength as Mia. This provides a bit of a challenge, as the goals of the sisters seem pretty meaningless. They both seem pretty intelligent and the plan they employ does have some semblance of merit, but by picking a representative that probably wouldn’t have committed the crime of love Mia has experienced, what are they going to gain? As the film goes on, they seem to be quite cruel, whether they are intentionally being so or not.
This is partly taken on by blog posts that Mia writes throughout the film, which punctuate the themes, perhaps a bit too clearly. She pontificates the nature of love as a weapon, claiming that in this crazy game you are either an offender or a victim. So, fed up by being a victim, Mia has to be an offender. Obviously, this is a pretty simplistic view of love, yet the film doesn’t really teach its characters anything about this theory. By the end, the only thing that Mia really learns is that she shouldn’t set up a plot to intentionally hurt a boy — not anything relating her various theories on love and relationships. As Mia is basically proving her theory of being a victim or being an offender through the construct of her game, the film seems to be saying that there is some merit to this. To the film’s credit, the running blog posts do feel very much like a hurt teen’s over-philosophical ramblings, which is something I know from full experience. It also provides a look into how people, especially teens, use the internet and social media to talk about their relationships and personal lives. It may be a healthy practice, but probably isn’t going to play well in the public setting of the internet. Strangely, I noticed by the end of the film that the world of Boys Are Us seems to live without adults — outside of one teacher character, I don’t recall anyone else over the age of 18.
There is only one break in the film where the three men experience the story differently. Being the only change, it is obviously important to note when reading the film, but as it happens at the film’s end, I won’t spoil the specifics here. Personally, I was confused by the conclusion. As I said, being a change in how the film is presented makes this moment incredibly important, but I just can’t find the reason for it to happen — other than providing a zippy ending to wrap it all up. Thus, like the film at large, it plays very fresh, but perhaps without a coherent purpose. The film feels like a neat writing exercise and practice in editing, and it certainly gives the film a unique and flashy structure, but the big question to ask is: “What else?” If you are one to think that art needs to have a particular reasoning to exist, you might struggle with Boys Are Us. Still, it deserves credit for turning what could have been a very unremarkable narrative into something world film always needs more of: something new.