Charlie Plummer in "National Anthem" Source: Variance Films

Review: 'National Anthem' a Stirring Ride Set in the World of Queer Rodeos

Kilian Melloy READ TIME: 3 MIN.

Director and co-writer Luke Gilford envisions a sweet New Mexico-set story in which a young man finds friends – and the possibility of love – at a ranch where queer rodeo riders create a community.

Dylan (Charlie Plummer) is barely in his 20s, but he's been the man of the house for years, as well as a parental figure for his younger brother. Their mother, Fiona (Robyn Lively) is a 40-something party girl who is struggling with alcoholism and can't ever seem to get her life organized.

Gentle and loving, Dylan is mocked by his day laborers at a gravel pit ("Pretty boy doesn't like it when we talk about pussy," one braggadocio-spouting lunkhead on the work site jeers), but he's saintly in his patience and care for his baby brother and messy mom. At the same time, though, he yearns to start a life of his own; he tucks away a little cash here and there in order to buy an RV and drive toward a different, more satisfying future.

When a chance for regular work at a ranch appears in the form of a handsome truck-driving man named Pepe (Rene Rosado), Dylan jumps at it. The ranch is located a long way away, which is an inconvenience for Fiona since she has to come and fetch Dylan at the end of the day, but once Dylan realizes that the ranch is staffed by a cadre of queer people – the name of the place is House of Splendor – he begins to feel welcome and, more than that, at home. It's not long before he doesn't need a ride home every evening, because he starts spending the night – and his growing love for Sky (Eve Lindley), a transgender woman, is another powerful incentive for his overnights. There's a complication in that Sky and Pepe are already an item, but Pepe has something of "a crush" on Dylan (at least, according to Sky, and the way Pepe looks at him seems to confirm it), so it seems possible that the three will be able to work something out.

Or will they? Pepe may be attracted to Dylan, but the reverse isn't true – or at least not equally so – and Dylan's deepening love for Sky starts putting a strain on her relationship with Pepe. Polyamory doesn't seem to be in the cards, and storm clouds of jealousy begin to gather in the sunny New Mexico skies above the otherwise-idyllic ranch.

The ranch's inhabitants share a crucial tie, though, and that's a passion for rodeo. They compete in the queer rodeo circuit (it's a thing in real life), and Dylan integrates into the group more deeply when he, too, begins to compete. The ranch hands and rodeo riders find other ways to bond – mushroom tea, snuggle piles – and one of them, the non-binary Carrie (Mason Alexander Park), provides support, friendship, and sensible counsel when Dylan's conflicts threaten to overwhelm him. "I'm telling you," Carrie insists in their marvelously calm, assuring way, "you belong."

But does he? That's the question Dylan will have to work out.

Inspired by Gilford's photo book about queer rodeos, and co-written with David Largman Murray and Kevin Best, the film's storyline falls a little too neatly into familiar tropes, but Gilford (who has directed music videos for Troye Sivan, Kesha, and others, as well as having made the 2015 short "Connected" with Jane Fonda) demonstrates an ease and authority with cinema with this debut feature that marks him out as a promising talent. The cast, too, are well-chosen, and Gilford brings out flawless performances from each of his actors.

"National Anthem" plays in selected theaters starting June 12 and expands nationally on June 19.

by Kilian Melloy , EDGE Staff Reporter

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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