Mope (2019) may not fully grasp its topic’s potential, but there is an undeniable boldness in Lucas Heyne’s riveting debut.
In the adult videos industry, the word “mope” has rather negative connotations. Mopes are people, who clean sets. Considering the amounts of fluids and some weird deviations at stake, a mope’s life is a hard one.
The two protagonists of Lucas Heyne’s film are often called that way. Tom Dong (Kelly Sry) and Steven Driver (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) meet on one of such set. That’s the first scene of “Mope”. And while I won’t go too much into into details, let me just say that Heyne opens with a serious blast. The riveting sequence starts in a dark-lit room, with a coruscating red light that instantly evokes a feeling of urgency and tension. Men sit around inside the four walls, each of them touches himself. Like runners before a marathon, they prepare for the scene.
And when the light turns green, their time to shine arrives.
I’ll refrain from any further spoiler, because this scene unravels in an unexpected way. What matters is that Heyne sketches the characters well in a very short time. Steve craves the spotlight, yet he’s certain about his talent. Tom, on the other hand, wants to be in the adult videos industry too, but he knows he’s not the right fit for it. Two dreamers, both seem to be in the wrong place – does it ring a bell?
Follow your dream at all costs
It does sound a lot like “The Disaster Artist”, where Hollywood’s most notorious anti-talents pursued their dreams. Steve and Tom share the same affection for cinema – just quite a different type of it. Like Tommy glorifying James Dean, these two know all the titles and household names of the industry. And with an overflow of zeal and one chance to prove their worthiness, they both join a dying production company, led by Eric (Brian Huskey).
One way to look at “Mope” is a study of people pursuing their dreams at all costs.
These costs are high: a well-paid job, a disgraceful place to live or even no roof at all. Despite the inconveniences, and constant mope-slurs thrown at them, Tom and Steve are ready to do everything. Even if it means getting kicked in the testicles or have their genitalia bit.
Their relentlessness is astonishing. Losers or not, Heyne manages to create two likable characters. You can’t help but laugh at their naivety at times, but Tom and Steve have hearts full of hope. Think of the industry we’re talking about too. Lustful, backward-thinking, chauvinist, and often disgusting – it’s not the exactly right environment for crowd-pleasing nerds.
Yet Heyne’s direction, though critical of the industry as a whole, never demonizes the people lost in it. Instead, there are moments, when Heyne turns all of its repelling factor into a comedy-inducing spell. It’s a clever approach, which steers away from documentaries that reveal the ugliness of the industry. At the same time, Heyne’s aware of all the cads, blackguards and libertines included in the package.
Thankfully, “Mope” isn’t a variation on the “Rogen-Franco goofing around” pattern, but set in adult videos industry. There’s an actual true story at its core, and “Mope” oozes a dark undertone that dictates the film’s mood. In some interviews, the director explained that many of the dialogues took place in real life. Moreover, a few episode roles are played by people playing themselves. Therefore, while dirty jokes pile up, Heyne connects the dots of the actual tragedy that inspired “Mope”.
Actors too turn “Mope” into a riveting spectacle
“Mope” is heavily dependent on Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s towering performance as Steve. Darkness resides underneath his ambition, and the young actor confidently explores that dangerous area of his character. Tom, on the other hand, keeps his emotions shackled, but Kelly Sry demonstrates the turmoil in details – like gazes or gesture he makes. Together, Sry and Stewart-Jarrett cover up Heyne’s moments of hesitation.
It’s also all the surroundings them that make “Mope” believable: the cheap sets, the awkward, creepy people working in the business, but also the luxurious mansions and naked women in pools. Heyne doesn’t expect anybody to fall in love with the industry, but he wants it to be understood deeper than what it surface shows.
That’s the only space where “Mope’s” director lacks the experience though. He takes shortcuts, often at the expense of more provocative statements. There were scenes that could be cut, and threads which could lead Heyne to the results far more disturbing.
That won’t come off a surprise, but “Mope” isn’t a film for everyone. It’s sometimes tough to handle, sometimes too repelling. But Heyne’s method to tell this story works for the most part. It could be just another story about two lame guys who had an unreachable dream. However, “Mope” deploys that universal message in the least favorable setting possible. And that’s what makes it stand out.
Mope (2019) – Culturally Hated or Loved?
Heyne’s film incorporates a well-balanced mix of comedy and drama to tell its true story with flair that overcomes minor flaws and lack of directorial skills.
Dir. Lucas Heyne
Hate Grade: 3/10
Read more about Sundance darlings of 2019:
- Lost Bayou – a gripping thriller about a Louisiana shaman’s daughter
- Honey Boy – Shia LaBeouf’s comeback in a moving self-portrait