In the essential documentary about the history of queer representation on film, The Celluloid Closet, gay screenwriter Jan Oxenberg expressed the desperation of queer moviegoers to see themselves onscreen. “We’re pathetically starved for images of ourselves,” she says. Just a few short generations ago, we were starved enough to settle for the predatory gay serial killer because at least he wasn’t straight. We settled for the lesbian who was a vampire, because at least that counted as representation. But over time, it has—to borrow the phrase—gotten better. These days, we have options, and can sift through an ever-growing collection of shows (of varying quality) and movies about gay life looking for precisely the stories that appeal to us—even, if we’re lucky, ones that closely mirror our own lives. When Looking premiered in early 2014, ignoring it wasn’t just a choice, it was a luxury.
How surprising it was to finally give in a season into its run and discover that the show—created by Michael Lannan and produced by Andrew Haigh—was actually good. Though not a mirror of my own life, it was a handsome—oh, so handsome—little window into the lives of young-ish to increasingly un-young-ish gay men in San Francisco. After 18 episodes, the show was canceled without fanfare, leaving their stories hovering in midair with the potential of a helium-filled balloon pulling its string tight.
Looking: The Movie, to my relief, sets them free, and gives us 90 deftly paced minutes with Patrick, Augustin, Eddie, Richie, Dom, Doris, Malik, and Kevin until they disappear once more for good. The movie, which premieres Saturday on HBO, begins with the news that Patrick (Jonathan Groff) has been living in Colorado in the seven months since the finale of Season 2. In the opening scene, he tells a friendly San Francisico cab driver that he’s returned to the Bay for a wedding. HBO asked us to avoid naming the characters around whom the film centers. While it’s not necessarily an important detail, I can understand the request. This is a movie of few surprises, made with what seems to be the sole intention of pleasing its fans and giving closure to its writers. Expectations are met (for the most part), and generally with contented smiles.
The movie’s twists aren’t too shocking—this isn’t Game of Thrones, after all—and the bulk of the narrative plays out during those long, revealing conversations over coffee or after sex that Looking did so well for two seasons. This show is as much about characters examining their own lives as it is about examining each others’, and it’s when those two fail to match up—or when they suddenly do—that the movie provides its most satisfying drama. There’s a spat in a gay bar. A revelation about children. Professions of love lost and love desired. The cast excels during these moments, and are as easy to look at as they’ve ever been. (Dare I say easier?) One particular scene involving Patrick and Kevin (Russell Tovey) having a spat inside a coffee shop is a particularly impressive bit of acting and one of the movie’s most gripping moments. Perhaps that’s because neither Patrick or Kevin (or screenwriters Haigh and Lannan) provide anyone with an easy answer. Looking has an acute understanding of—and almost a fondness for—the frustrating gray areas between romance and friendship, and it makes that clear all the way through to its final scene.
As the camera slowly pulled back for one last beautiful glimpse of The Castro at sunrise, I was pleased that the show was given a chance to give its fans a conclusion, and to address the many issues that have hounded it since the premiere. But more than that, I was happy. For them, for Lannan and Haigh, and—in a admittedly silly way—for the community. It wasn’t the whole queer experience, but it was a thoughtful, well-made (and did I mention handsome?) little sliver. I’m happy to have found it, and even happier that it was there to find.