I always look forward to film by Michael Saul and he always lets me know when he has something new so I was surprised when “The Surface” came out. I knew it was coming because I am on the film’s Facebook page but I guess I was not paying attention. Nevertheless, I have seen the film and it is exceptional.
“The Surface” is the story of Evan Jones (Harry Hains), an orphan who moved from foster home to foster home as a kid. We meet him now as a college student who lives with Chris (Nicholas McDonald), his boyfriend but their relationship suffers because of social and economic differences. However, even with these, the two love each other very much. Once while at a yard sale, Evan found an old 8mm movie camera and the man whose it had once belonged to offers to teach Evan how to use it if he returns a week later and when he does, Evan meets Peter (Michael Redford Carney), the old man’s 43 year old son. At that point Peter gives Evan some reels of old movies that were made with the camera and as he watches them, Evan is touched by what he sees. Peter, as a young boy, is in the films along with his young friend, Mark. It is almost like watching two youngsters flirting with other but in a totally pure way. However for Evan, something is happening and he begins to live like what he sees in the films. He feels the genuine friendship that the two young boys share and Evan begins to question his own relationship as well as his place in the world. Soon his friendship with Peter becomes quite romantic as his relationship with Chris falls apart. Peter and Evan seem to be on equal footing despite the differences in their ages.
The film is slow paced but that does not mean it is tedious; the opposite is true. As it moves forward we get to know the characters better (and perhaps, even identify with them). I must say that Hains delivers a gorgeous performance as Evan and his facial expressions say it all. I love the reflective move that he shows us as he watches the old movies and undoubtedly wishes that he had had a childhood that was free of the scars and traumas of foster homes.
Evan’s childhood obviously caused him pain; when we meet him he has still not found himself although sexuality is not part of the situation. He knows he is gay and that is not a problem. He is in love with two men and being gay does not cause him any problems. Chris knows that their relationship is ending but he does not want it to be. Evan feels that Peter, an obvious father-like figure, can give him the love her wants and needs because Peter knows what love is and understands its value.
I had the feeling that I was watching a very personal film that perhaps reflected the life of director Michael Saul. In that sense this is an introspective film. Of course with Harry Hains good lucks as Evan, the camera shoots the film with loving care. Saul has done something very interesting with the juxtaposition of the footage from the old camera with modern cinematography and we see clearly how times have changed for gay people. Hains has no problem with full frontal nudity and passionate kissing making this film a true representation of gay life.
It is the characters that propel the film forward and it is a pleasure to watch them as they navigate life and the issues of family, love and friendship. There is quite a strong message here and it is clothed in reality yet very simple—we are not to assume that life is good and neither or we to take it for granted. This is a lyrical and, as I said before (but want to emphasize) personal film that makes us feel good as well as causes us to think about how we live. It is also a bit different that what we have come to expect from director Michael Saul and I am willing to bet that this is so because there is a good bit of him in the film.