Back to 1999: Get Real and the necessary discomfort of coming out movies
The British teen drama is turning 20 years old, and it's still a little too real all these years later
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
Earlier this year, I introduced a little mini-series of columns within this column that look back at queer films of 1999. The impetus behind it wasn't simply the fact that these films are celebrating their 20th anniversaries, but because a) 1999 was an outstanding year for queer movies and b) said movies played a considerable role in the journey out of the closet I started around that same time.
When I wrote the first piece on Jim Fall's whimsical rom-com Trick, I recalled how I found my way to that movie because it somehow was for sale on the VHS bargain rack at the Giant Tiger in my hometown of Trenton, Ont. What I had completely forgot is where that tape ended up and how it ultimately played a literal role in outing me. My mother hadn't, however, and after she read the column on Trick, asked me: "Was that one of the tapes in 'the box'?"
"The box" was an Adidas shoebox under my bed where I kept the small collection of VHS queer cinema I'd managed to assemble from various bargain racks in the Greater Quinte Region. On a fateful day in the summer of 2002, it was how my mother confirmed her growing suspicion I was gay. She snooped through my room while I was at work, and when I came home, she confronted me with "the box" and I finally told her my truth. (I know this seems like questionable parenting, but within a week she was well on her way to being all a queer boy could ask for in a mother, so don't worry.)
Alongside Trick in my mother's discovery was another 1999 film: Simon Shore's Get Real. Before I had even been reminded of "the box," I had figured it would make sense as the spring edition of the "Back to 1999" series because April marks the actual 20th anniversary of its release in North American theatres. But what I hadn't figured was what a challenging reminder viewing Get Real would be in terms of my own existence in 1999.
When I re-watched Trick over and over during my teens, it simply played as a hopeful fantasy of what was to come: the film showed two 20-something gay men falling in love over the course of a night in New York City. Get Real, however, was set in a parallel narrative to my own at the time. Set in a rural British high school, the film (based on the play What's Wrong With Angry? by Patrick Wilde) follows Steven Carter (Ben Silverstone), a closeted, mildly nerdy 16-year-old whose life is upended when he begins an affair with the town's dreamy golden boy, John Dixon (Brad Gorton). The affair proves problematic because John is very much intent on stay in the closet, leading to a climax where Steven comes out in front of the entire school during a speech accepting an award for an article he wrote.
I remember it took quite a few tries to get through Get Real when I first found my way to it (likely sometime in 2001 via secret missions to the Sam The Record Man in neighbouring Belleville, Ont.). And when I had the same trouble re-watching it again this past weekend, it wasn't hard for me to understand why. It was not in any way because the film was lacking in quality — it's probably one of the best teen coming-out films ever made (and believe me, I've seen them all) thanks to how incredibly charming and affecting it is in portraying John Dixon's journey to self-realization, and it holds up quite well 20 years later. But Get Real felt a little...too real.
By taking me back to my own experience as a closeted, mildly nerdy 16-year-old attending a rural Canadian high school (though I never got to date the school's hottest boy or come out with a grandiose speech, so in that case the film isn't quite as real as I'd hope), watching Get Real in 2019 dug up a lot of hard memories to the years preceding my mother uncovering "the box." Even in the generally privileged narratives imposed on folks like Steven Carter and myself, coming out is an incredibly isolating thing to push through and I suspect something you never quite fully get over (case in point: me sobbing through its final 20 minutes this Sunday evening). But when I finally made it to the film's final moments, where Steven Carter is embraced by his mother after she comes to learn of him being gay through his speech, it was something I didn't regret revisiting.
I may have gone to bed puffy-eyed, but I also went to bed reminded of how proud I should be for making it to the other side. And really, as hard as it may have been to watch back when I was in the middle of experiencing my own version of its content, Get Real helped get me there. Steven Carter taught me that everything was maybe going to be okay — and then he inadvertently showed me it actually would be when a VHS cover with his face on it led to my own mother's embrace.