Good films have an ability to capture our attention, take us to a fantastical new world, and entertain us with a story that is not our own.
Great films, on the other hand, plunge us back into reality — revealing, sometimes with sobering clarity, truths we were not aware of or were trying to ignore. These films aren't always big blockbusters or melodramatic biopics. Sometimes poignant messages can be found in some of the more unassuming films. Such is the case with the LGBT bro-comedy, Fourth Man Out, a film that shows the tension and development of a tight-knit group of male friends when one of them comes out as gay.
Evan Todd stars as Adam, a blue-collar mechanic in a small town, who on his 24th birthday decides to come out as gay to his best friends: Chris, Ortu, and Nick. After some initial shock the friends, led primarily by Chris, rally around Adam helping him come out to his parents and start his first long-term romantic relationship.
The humor in this film is beautifully organic, at times cringe-inducingly awkward, and soberingly realistic. Whether it’s the group’s struggle to understand Adam’s sexuality outside stereotypes (“Adam can’t be gay. The dude eats steak every day.”), Nick’s oddly probing questions about gay subculture, or Adam’s awkward coming-out to his parents, gay folk and their straight friends will find these scenes teeming with knowing laughter at the very normal, relatable feeling of it all.
Although the plot focuses on Adam’s coming out, the character who goes through the most dynamic change is Chris. At the beginning of the film, Chris is a typical heterosexual male, content to drink beers with his bros and maintain a purely sexual relationship with his not-quite girlfriend, Jess. After initially responding selfishly to Adam’s coming out, Chris is jolted awake by another friend and focuses his attention on helping Adam. Chris’s main growing edge comes from his internal struggle between wanting to love his friend well and a deep fear that Adam is secretly in love with him (aided by Jess’s constant jeering). After coming to a climax in the main conflict of the film, Chris must learn how to either integrate these tensions within himself or lose his friendship.
Fourth Man Out offers a powerful message on male friendship and illustrates the complexities of relationship dynamics in a heteronormative, hyper-masculine context. The homophobic jokes in the movie come across not as spiteful slurs but rather the coded language of a socialized heteronormative masculinity where anything feminine or homosexual is seen as a deviation from maleness. The men laugh at each other for “being gay” in an attempt to not show weakness and not be perceived as less than a man. Yet, when Adam comes out, they are no longer comfortable taking jabs at one another’s perceived homosexuality (or deviation from the masculine norm), especially now that Adam is one of those people.
It is also fascinating to watch Ortu, Nick, and Chris come to terms with their own heterosexualities as they not only wrestle with understanding Adam apart from rigid gay stereotypes, but also as they understand themselves in their own nonconformity to traditional masculine gender roles (e.g. Chris’s frequent bubble baths, Nick’s affinity for Les Mis, and Ortu’s love of Taylor Swift). Remarkable, too, is that the primary motivation for the development of the characters is not because they feel some external obligation to love gay people in general, but rather because they deeply love their friend who also happens to be gay. They change because of Adam.
The movie offers an obvious critique of the Church via Martha, Adam’s fundamentalist next-door neighbor who at one point tries to get the local priest to give Adam his last rites because of his “eternal damnation” for being gay. Unfortunately this character is mostly a caricature. In a more subtle sense, however, the film reveals strong cultural issues regarding homosexuality that Christians tend to gloss over. Evangelicals often want to believe that they can satisfy the criteria for loving their neighbor by simply saying the right ethical statement. This mentality frequently comes at the expense of real change.
A heterosexual Christian may say that he loves everyone. Yet unless he is pressed to wrestle with his own sexual identity he will remain blind to how he, too, participates in the oppression of the gay people he claims to love.
Would the friends have felt as obligated to challenge their own understanding of sexuality if they didn’t believe that Adam had just as much right to love and happiness as they did? Would they have maintained their friendship with Adam (or deepened it as they did in the film) if they believed that Adam was fundamentally flawed on a deep spiritual level simply for being gay? How much more could their friendship have been transformed if Chris had attempted to provide a chaste solution to Adam’s loneliness through a covenantal friendship? We don’t know.
Nevertheless, Fourth Man Out provides a greater friendship narrative than any Christian movie I have ever seen (and perhaps many secular movies). In it’s own 'bro-like', comedic way the film not only highlights real tensions and relationship struggles between straight and gay men, it also shows the power to overcome them for the sake of real love.
Perhaps, by identifying with the struggles of Chris, Ortu, Nick, and Adam, we can create a common language to describe our own struggles and work to deepen our relationships across lines of sexual orientation.
[The film is rated R and includes vulgarity, explicit sexual references, and profanity.]
Taylor Zimmerman is a theology and counseling student at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, KY. His research interests include theology of the body, virtue ethics, attachment theory, and identity formation.