The Berlin Film Festival's annual Teddy awards have generally proven a reliable guide to worthwhile developments in LGBTQI+ cinema: such luminaries as Pedro Almodóvar, Todd Haynes and Derek Jarman took home prizes in the awards' earliest years, and over the past decade the Best Feature gong has gone to The Kids Are All Right, Keep the Lights On and A Fantastic Woman. Last year's winner Hard Paint has social significance to spare - it may be among the last queer-themed films to emerge from Brazil for a while, now that the would-be strongman Bolsonaro has put the nation's film industry on lockdown - yet in and of itself it suggests the 2018 competition was something less than fierce. You get a feel for its pros and cons from its first two shots. In the first, a young man lies spent and asleep on a live Internet feed, commented upon by those who've just seen him perform: welcome, the film says, to the wild new frontier of camming, that cash-for-flesh endeavour every bit as hung up on the pleasures of looking as the cinema itself. That's encouraging enough, but the second shot, perched on the back of our sleepy protagonist's head as he goes about his daily business offline - a perspective originated by the Dardenne brothers, and since worn thin through arthouse repetition - suggests we'll be entering this world in that ever-so-slightly academic, bloodless, secondhand fashion that tends to be better received at festivals than it ever is by real audiences. (The closing images, too, will be half-inched, this time from a prominent homoerotic release of 1999.)
The experience of watching Hard Paint is that of waiting for a showdown that never comes. The antagonists are in place: the whey-faced, socially awkward Pedro (Shico Menegat), a college dropout who reinvents himself after dark as Neon Boy, daubing his lithe torso in fluorescent paint for the benefit of onlooking strangers; and the older Leo (Bruno Fernandes), a trainee dancer who performs a more assured and gymnastic variation on the same routine, and has the energy to keep gyrating long after Pedro has nodded off. You can see the thriller lurking in this set-up, one that would deftly underline how, even in this relatively new and niche field of capitalist endeavour, the competition is ruthless. Instead, this pair fall into a tepid, lopsided friendship, which becomes more intimate away from the laptop's glare: some banally staged sex scenes feel like vengeance for a half-century of bland zipless fucks in straight movies. Though it yields one semi-clever sequence - when a rift in this relationship is accentuated by a punter paying for the boys to wrestle naked - the camming is but a salacious selling point, a zeitgeisty hook on which to hang yet another cautious coming-out narrative, and a means of lending visual oomph to some otherwise dourly naturalistic images. As a character study, it's sunk almost from the off by Menegat's infuriatingly mopey performance: Pedro is barely less passive once he's woken up. You wouldn't fork out to watch this dope cam for ten minutes, so why pay to see him in a two-hour movie?
Hard Paint opens in selected cinemas from today, ahead of its DVD release on August 26.