The frat bro has been a staple character in American cinema for half a century. It is the cinematic relative of the high school jock and the corporate asshole, and though it has evolved over the years from a Belushian Buffoon into the blue blood iciness of a Winklevoss twin, it is frequently seen as a kind of regressive character that tends to engage in unpleasant behavior tainted by toxic masculinity, substance abuse, and exclusion. God takes the narrative to a different place by aligning its point of view with a young fraternity brother named “Oprah” who doesn’t seem as “bro-y” as his friends. His obsession with a poem about a sexual encounter and the woman who wrote it, the one they call “God”, sets the premise for a story that is both subversive, but warm to, the swirling cauldron of hyper-masculinity and brotherhood that defines greek life.
If you’re interested in a spoiler-free reading experience, I would suggest averting your eyes for several minutes before reading any further.
Are you back? What’d you think? What I like most about GOD is the way it takes your expectations for the film and turns them around on you—in the process, reframing the narrative to be about something you might not have seen at first. Director Greg Brunkalla, an accomplished commercial director, adapts the film from a Benjamin Nugent story that was originally published in The Paris Review, and thus God possesses a literary flavor that pairs surprisingly well with a story about frat brothers. Nugent, and by extension Brunkalla, find greek life a fascinating tableau upon which to examine the dueling forces of homoeroticism and homophobia that are undeniably present in groups of young men that spend their time trying impress with performative masculinity.
Duality is found throughout the film, and the use of nicknames—a common aspect of fraternity life—is employed in a clever way to further explore these characters and their experiences with sexuality and self-discovery. The young man at the center of this story is supposedly called “Oprah” because he reads books, but it is perhaps more likely that they gave him this nickname because of his more effeminate nature. The young woman is nicknamed “God” because she wrote a poem about a fraternity brother’s premature ejaculation and shared it with her friends—the kind of thing a fraternity brother might do. She is thus seen as someone who is both powerful and unattainable, someone who renders men impotent in bed. She has a secret of her own, though—she’s actually a virgin. And there is also “Nutella”, the subject of both characters’ desire, a chiseled fraternity brother that is named as such because of his sweet demeanor, a character that is placed on a pedestal of sorts because he doesn’t seem to have any secrets of his own.
In addition to nicknames, there is an interesting use of doors as something to hide behind, particularly when it comes to Oprah’s bedroom in the fraternity house, which he keeps locked at all times. When Melanie (“God”) comes back to his bedroom, he is slow to close this door to the outside world, perhaps because he is afraid that if he goes any further with Melanie his secrets will be revealed to her. When she leaves in the clear blue light of morning, she leaves the door open, a symbol that his secret is no longer safe, and that his sexual orientation will be exposed for all to see.
The film is brought to life by a pair of beautiful performances from Ili Ray (who plays “God”) and Tyler Young (who plays “Oprah”), and they both feel so comfortable and believable in the clothes of their characters. There is also a talented ensemble of young actors, a chorus-like group of foils and fools who add an extra layer of mythology to the film. A combination of carefully lensed cinematography by Patrick Scola and a delicate score by Guy Amitai and Rostam Batmanglij contribute to the dreamlike feel of the film. Credit must also be given to Brunkalla for adapting this tale in a faithful way and steering the narrative towards self-realization while keeping the ending shrouded in mystery for as long as he can.
Young men often hide behind symbols of “traditional” masculinity because they are scared that they are not masculine enough on their own, and at heart of this film lies the fear of showing your true self, of other people finding out who you really are and rejecting you for it. The film is both tender and delicate, and though there are undeniable issues with the structure of organizations like fraternities, this film maybe points to a future of fraternities that are less homophobic, more inclusive, and less interested in perpetuating stereotypes of grunt-like group think.
If you like the sensibility of God, you’ll be pleased to hear that Nugent is releasing a book of short stories in July entitled Fraternity, which further dives into the world depicted here. As for Brunkalla, he tells us that he is working a feature script at the moment, via a program from the Sundance Institute.