Back to 1999: How the rom-com charms of Trick gave me big gay hope as a small town boy

The film was my literal fairy tale 20 years ago — how does it hold up in 2019?

The film was my literal fairy tale 20 years ago — how does it hold up in 2019?

Trick. (Fine Line)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

The one annoying thing my, otherwise flawless, pop music prince Troye Sivan has done in his career is deciding it was a good idea to team up with Charli XCX on last year's single "1999." On the (admittedly very catchy) track, Sivan and XCX try to tap into a general surge in 1990s throwbacks, singing about how much they "wanna go back, back to 1999," referencing Britney Spears, Nike Airs, Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Eminem as some of the alleged reasons why:

Drive 'round listening to Shady like, oh / Never under pressure, oh / Those days it was so much better, oh / Feelin' cool in my youth, relaxin' / No money, no problem / It was easy back then / Ooh, wish that we could go back in time

You know why it so was easy back then, Troye? Because you were four years old. If you were driving around listening to Eminem, you were in a car seat in the back while your parents blasted The Slim Shady LP (which might I add, is littered with homophobic lyrics that did not help make those days be "so much better"). 

I write this as someone who, unlike Mr. Sivan, was very much old enough to remember — and thus potentially would "wanna go back to" — 1999. But considering at that time I was a 15-year-old in the midst of clumsily coming out in a tragic military town in Eastern Ontario, I can't say I do. That is, except when it comes to one thing: movies — ones that in many ways provided a queer solace for me, not unlike what I assume teenagers today are lucky enough to get from Troye Sivan. 

It's not an unpopular idea that 1999 was one of the greatest years of all time when it comes to movies. TIFF is currently devoting an entire program to that notion, screening everything from The Sixth Sense to The Matrix. And while I fondly remember going to the local multiplex to see those rare feats of wildly commercial cinematic excellence, the 1999 movies I still hold nearest and dearest were not ones I got to watch in theatres, or in most cases even in the year they were released.

The VHS cover for Trick. (Fine Line)

Over the rest of this year, I want to occasionally devote this column to revisiting some of the films that represent what an outstanding year 1999 was for queer cinema. These films provided me (and I'm sure many others) a road map out of the closet back when mainstream LGBTQ representation was still extremely hard to come by, even if they weren't always that easy to get my hands on. Case in point? My first example: Jim Fall's perfectly charming rom-com Trick.

Essentially putting Before Sunrise in a blender with the films of Doris Day — and then serving it gay with its own sense of self — Trick follows two 20-something gay men as they spend an entire night roaming New York City's West Village trying to find a place to hook up. It stars Toronto-born Christian Campbell (brother of Neve) as impossibly insecure aspiring Broadway composer Gabriel and John Paul Pitoc as the impossibly confident go-go dancer who picks him up on the subway. After a series of ups and downs — many involving Tori Spelling as Gabriel's hysterical BFF — they of course fall hard for each other. And their night's journey pretty much remains my own gold-standard fantasy for the ideal first date (in fact, I have tried to replicate it many, many times).

The first audiences that got to see Trick did so exactly 20 years ago this week, when the film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Distributor Fine Line Features bought it at the festival and then released it that summer in a handful of cinemas across North America. Audiences embraced it, and it ended up making just over $2 million at the box office — which might not sound like a lot, but for a small queer film that was never on more than 100 screens in 1999, that's impressive.

I would find my way to it a year or so later, through the most small-town of circumstances. Sometime in the fall of 2000, Trick miraculously found its way to the VHS sale rack at the Giant Tiger in downtown Trenton, Ont. — a rack I would routinely scour whenever I waited for my best friend who worked there to finish her shift. When I saw the cover with two cute boys walking down the street together with the double-entendre tagline "A story about two guys trying to make it in the big city," I read between the lines: this movie is gay. And $9.99 later, I owned as many gay VHS tapes as I had friends who knew I was gay: one. (Thankfully, that one friend was the one who worked at Giant Tiger, so it all checked out.)

I'm sure I watched Trick at least a dozen times in the two years I had left in that town. It became my literal fairy tale, promising me that one day I too would spend a night roaming the streets with a heart-of-gold go-go boy who could see through my own impossible insecurity to want me anyway. That I too would get lectured by a drag queen in a gay bar bathroom about the dangers of keeping your eyes open around ejaculation (see the amazing clip below featuring the legendary Miss Coco Peru). That I too would have a crazy best gal pal who secretly coveted my being gay...It was by no means the first gay film I'd seen, but Trick was one of the first that wasn't ultimately tragic. It was just a well-done rom-com where instead of identifying with Julia Roberts or Meg Ryan, I got to identify with an actual gay man.

Despite the film's legacy in my own personal journey, I had fairly low expectations going into a rewatch a few days ago. I assumed my gay teenage bar might have been understandably low due to, well, desperation. But not so. Trick felt just as sweet, funny and hopeful as I remembered it. Campbell and Pitoc's chemistry is adorable, and even Tori Spelling comes out of it looking much more capable of acting than most have ever given her credit for. The only downside to revisiting it was how depressing the evolutions of both gay romantic comedies and actual real-life gay romance have gone through since Trick was released.

The mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000s had a relatively impressive output of gay rom-coms, for better (Go Fish, Jeffrey) or worse (Mambo Italiano). In the past three years, the only film that even remotely qualifies as one is 2018's Love, Simon, which was way too light on the rom or the com for my tastes. Honestly, I cannot think of even one example that I truly enjoyed in the past decade (unless 2011's Weekend counts, in which case, I can think of just one). But then again, what would a 2019 Trick look like anyway? Would Gabriel and Mark's lack of attention spans and addictions to Grindr deem spending an entire night together too unbelievable? Would it be set in a city where a go-go boy and an aspiring musical writer could afford to live? Would it even be possible to evoke the hope and enchantment of the first film if it were set in the anxiety and dread of 2019?

We'll actually soon find out, as director Jim Fall is in the midst of bringing back the entire cast to revise their roles in a sequel set in the present day. And while I obviously look forward to what that has in store, in the meantime, I think I may wanna go back to 1999 a little more than I thought — if I'd get to live in New York City and spend the night with a go-go boy.


Peter Knegt (he/him) has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada and nominated again this year) and hosting the video interview series Here & Queer. He's also spearheaded the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.