A REVIEW OF THE FILM JET BOY (2001)
Jet Boy is a 2001 Canadian drama written and directed by Dave Schultz. It stars Branden Nadon and Dylan Walsh and runs 99 min.
The Lonely Way to Fly
by Sam Hall, 16 May 2022
If Jet Boy (2001) were a jet, passengers would be well advised to strap in tight for take-off and hit the emergency chute before landing. The film makes a rocky start and ends by splattering itself across the tarmac. But in between the egregious ingress and egress, it's a very enjoyable ride. A vulnerable, homeless rent-boy and a mysterious tough-guy are forced together by circumstance and turn out to be just what each other needed. A slam-dunk plot waiting for a three-act touch-up. The unavoidable need to deal with the pederastic implications did see the film get tangled up in some nonsense, but the man-boy relationship had plenty of charm and the dialogue between the two was often excellent, clearly the film's strength. Boyish non-sequitur and manly laconicism were used to fine effect, moving or hilarious as the moment required. It's not surprising to see that David Schultz, the film's writer-director, has a CV which leans heavily on the screenwriting credits.
We meet the film's protagonist, Nathan, on the eve of his fourteenth birthday. It's late, he's in a seedy diner, pale, raggedy, sad, but, incongruously, touchingly, he's working on kid's model car kit. Unfortunately he's interrupted by a john who takes him off to a motel for some sadistic, back-scarring sex. And from there, as his birthday dawns, it's all downhill. His mother gives his bedroom away while demanding he hand over the drugs he's been selling his ass for. She shoos him off by telling him there's birthday cake in the fridge. Nathan finds a sad soggy lump of something loveless, sticks four candles in it, lights them, blows them out, stares at nothing. Then his mum dies. Oh, and earlier he got beat up at school and kicked out early.
That sort of vulgar, stampeding raid on a bloke's precious store of sympathy runs the risk of provoking a splenetic response of Dostoevskian perversity. And the problem is compounded by Branden Nadon, the actor playing Nathan. His range is a bit limited, although this wouldn't have been a problem if his range had matched the requirements of the role. At no stage is it believable Nathan has lived the hellish life that the film sketches out. His sad and vulnerable persona, with an ever-present hint of puppy-dog hope someone will love him, doesn't fit the bill. He's grown up without a father and his druggie mother was prostituting him from God knows how young to feed her habit and amuse her boyfriends. Being the only world he knows, at fourteen he's trying to gain a measure of independence in his rent-boy career.
No matter how sensitive a soul the boy was born with, he would have had to develop street smarts and a thick skin. Nadon's performance is a flattering pander to middle-class sentimental feelings about a boy in such a plight. We know with every fibre of our disturbed being we wouldn't hesitate to save this boy. Nathan seems not quite to believe he's stuck in such an awful situation -- "I just want to be a good kid" -- and is made very glum by how rotten the world can be. It's like the boy from Leave It To Beaver has been accidentally dumped in an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and he's wandering sadly about the streets waiting for his real director to show up and take him home.
Fortunately, for the bulk of the film, this doesn't really matter. Once he meets up with Boon Palmer, the mysterious tough-guy, he becomes a very likeable kid down on his luck, looking for a meal and a ride to...somewhere else. Besides, early in the film, Nathan performs a feat that earns our undying admiration and loyalty. At the police station after his mum has overdosed, Nathan's sitting in a corridor waiting for due process to run its course. Suddenly the cop who'd interviewed him is walking toward him with a nice, smiling young woman from Social Services. Nathan takes off as though, after all he's been through, he's finally come face to face with true evil. Wise lad! Again, didn't really gel with the boy being portrayed by Nadon, but a heart-warming scene like that deserves a free pass every time.
Nathan treks out of the city on foot and makes it to a roadside diner. There he finds his one friend in the world, a newt or tadpole or some such wriggly thing he keeps in a jar, has died. He flushes it, and we all bow our heads and say a quiet prayer in the hope this film's ravenous need for sympathy might finally have been met.
Nathan spots Boon as a potential ride and jumps into his booth to try chatting him up. Boon is stony silent, tries to brush the kid off. Which is interesting, because Boon recognised the boy. He saw him at the police station, through a one-way mirror, and was clearly taken with him. Later we discover Boon carries a wound or two from a hopeless relationship with a rotten dad. But it seems a bit of a stretch to make that the cause of his strong first-sight response to the boy. Certainly it's made clear Boon feels no sexual attraction to the boy, but the emotional connection, which troubles Boon from the get-go, and which grows steadily to love, is never fully explained. Perhaps that's why we we're deluged with heartstring-tugging overkill -- how could anyone, man, woman or beast, not love this deserving boy? No matter; love's a mystery, and it works for these two, so we can let it be.
Nathan shows some tenacity and ingenuity in cadging a ride with a resisting Boon. In fact, this is the scene where the boy comes into his own as a sort of fatherless Beaver persona, and the film settles into its more natural middle-of-the-road vibe. The official bonding moment deserves a special mention. It's a ripper. Setting off on their road trip, still in a fractious state of niggle, Nathan casually rifles through the car's glove box and finds Boon's gun. Has the book been written yet on boys and their uncanny ability to divine men's weapons? Or is it still languishing out in the jungle, awaiting a more civilised people to write it up? Nathan pulls the gun out, hardly has time to utter the question on the tip of every boy's need-to-know -- "Is this thing loaded?" -- when it goes off with an ear-splitting bang, sending the vehicle careening off the road. Aftermath: the bullet missed Boon by a whisker and the boy is almost out cold with a bloodied forehead from the recoil. Given the tension between the pair, one is expecting fury. But Boon, for the first time, is all smiles and jokes and affection, obviously finding the near-death explosion an irresistible lark. Words, it has to be said, are often a very poor medium of exchange between males.
From here the script writes itself: steadily building relationship spiced up with a few set backs, leading to the final overcoming of a disastrous falling out. The disastrous falling out takes us back into a lurid confrontation with pederasty. All along, Nathan has been trying to further his relationship with Boon with physical contact, always taking the chance to bump up against him as they walk or sit together, and would probably have held his hand if Boon hadn't remained so steadfastly stand-offish. This culminates in Nathan making a sexual advance on Boon in bed. Unlike when the kid fired the gun at him, Boon now reacts as if he's been shot, hurling the boy from the bed and demanding, "You think that's what I want?" He then answers his own question by kicking the boy out onto the street, intending to have nothing more to do with him. It's an answer more enigmatic than a Delphine oracle.
The charge of Boon "protesting too much" has to be considered. He loves Nathan by this stage. He'd allowed their separate sleeping arrangements to lapse. With Nathan asleep beside him, Boon for the first time makes deliberate physical contact with a light touch of the welts on the boy's back. The potential for this relationship to become sexual is a reasonable candidate for provoking Boon's extreme reaction. The stronger the man's feelings for the boy became, the more he unavoidably tapped into old pederastic energies that have been ever-present in man and ape. This is why men today, out in the real world, don't befriend boys. It's why Boon tried not to. His throwing the boy back out on the street can be justified, or understood, in Darwinian terms: it's an instinctual need to protect his own social existence.
This leaves the film with quite a conundrum to solve. Nathan has been "sexualised" by his rent-boy lifestyle and it appears any relationship he has with Boon will always be threatened by an irruption of the inappropriate. Being a fourteen-year-old boy, it may be too hard to put the cat back in the bag. Boon admits this impasse when he denies any responsibility for the boy, insisting he won't change his life for "some fucked up little hustler with a broken heart". Said in a moment of anger, after he's lost him, it's a rather startling expression of where he's at with the boy.
The solution can only be found by hurling the film back into the abyss from which it earlier clambered. Nathan returns to hustling. After Boon threw him out of bed, an upset Nathan said, "You can fuck me if you want; I'm pretty good at it." One doesn't like to be too harsh on the confused lad (or the even more confused actor), but it sounds an embarrassingly hollow boast.
Out on the street, he picks up a john who takes him to a rather swank apartment. Far from being "pretty good at it", we now find Nathan has undergone a complete transformation. No longer betwixt and between, he has become the full fifties' sitcom boy. When the man -- suitably creepy -- attempts to begin proceedings, Nathan reacts with disgust and horror -- a nice Beaver would never! -- and locks himself in the bathroom.
Meanwhile, Boon has been borrowing from the magician's playbook, creating a spectacular diversion so the audience won't notice where the real chicanery is taking place. The drug bust finale of Boon's was...well, whatever it was, it wasn't worth either the filming, the watching or the critiquing. The loopy upshot was that Boon, like a gun-toting Tarzan, begins yodelling his way through the concrete jungle to rescue his trapped little buddy.
Back in the swank apartment, the john, having seen Nathan become upset, was of course immediately moved to begin trying to rape or bash or torture the boy, or some combination thereof. Chest-beating Boon arrives in the nick of time, smites the creep, then convinces Nathan to unlock the bathroom door. True to this film's topsy-turvy ways, it then drops a convincing and moving moment where it is now Boon insisting on physical contact, dragging the boy to him, sweeping him up in a full and unmitigated hug -- "Don't worry, I won't let go". The magic trick has come off beautifully. Nathan in that hotel room has -- voila! -- become magically de-sexualised. He is now a typical asexual fourteen-year-old again -- "a good kid" -- thanks to Boon's earlier harsh treatment. And so Boon is free to fully love and embrace him.
A film seeking depth, rather than movie-of-the-week security, might have more subtly explored its very interesting triumvirate of pederastically important themes: sexual love, Platonic love, fatherhood. Jet Boy made a tediously rote horror-prop out of the sexual love, while pulling a very implausible white rabbit of fatherhood out of a topping bit of Platonic by-play. Not a great film by any measure, but well worth a look.