National Anthem | Film Threat

Mar 24, 2023

SXSW FILM FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEW! The debut feature film for first-time director Luke Gilford, National Anthem is a dramatic film of exploration, discovery, and love in the wild lands of the Southwest desert for Dylan (Charlie Plummer), who takes odd ranch jobs to fund his dream of buying an RV to roam across America. Under the roof of his single mom, Fiona (Robyn Lively), an off-and-on alcoholic hairdresser and the caretaker of his young brother, Dylan’s life is lonely and small as a quiet but respectable 21-year-old ranchhand in rural New Mexico.
Taking a job to work on a remote ranch, a homestead dubbed the House of Splendor, Dylan’s life becomes infused with new people, out-of-the-ordinary experiences, unknown sexuality, and undiscovered emotions. It all adds to a greater understanding of life and being, especially with the opportunity to participate in a rodeo, only this one is queer, and it’s fun with glamorous, talented drag queens and badass rodeo riders. And they can belt out the National Anthem like nobody’s business. It’s quite a contrast of life between the remote, bleak desert that Dylan is used to.
As the story of Dylan’s discovery of himself and life unfolds, he is open to accepting whatever comes his way. One day is moving hay bales, and the next is getting ready for the ride of his life due to his newfound love for Sky (Eve Lindley), a full-of-life personality living in the moment— the opposite of Dylan. As Sky draws Dylan into her world with her partner Pepe (Rene Rosado) and their crew, including Carrie (Mason Alexander Park of Quantum Leap and The Sandman), the glue to the film through wisdom and guidance, Dylan learns of Sky’s talent as a barrel racer on her beloved horse, Cash. Much ensues with a growing affection for Sky being part of alternative life and culture, creating solid friendships, and bringing his family of his brother and mother to a better place and eventually himself. Yet, none of this happens easily, and some come from out of nowhere.
“…takes odd ranch jobs to fund his dream of buying an RV to roam across America.”
A beautifully filmed (on film) movie by rising star cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi of Dune and many other noteworthy projects, the open feel of the desert, love, and identity is felt through purposeful angles and natural light. The contrast between life and nature is real. However, the choices and direction of Luke Gilford are also well executed, allowing a story to unfold in unexpected ways. Gilford is bridging a world that needs acceptance with ordinary life. Only he adds a little finesse, a love of imagery, and many authenticities that go a long way for this first-time filmmaker.
National Anthem is an adaptation of his photography monograph exploring America’s queer rodeo. Gilford’s father was a rodeo contender, and he grew up going to rodeos, which gives National Anthem even more credibility to this particular storytelling and LGBTQ understanding.
Perhaps what is most exceptional about Gilford’s filmmaking is that he allows the audience to decide its place. There’s no forced thinking or demand on a lifestyle, people, or place—it’s there, and one can take it or leave it. National Anthem is filled with beautiful people, from its stars to supporting roles, and the camera loves them all. Gilford’s National Anthem offers a sense of beauty to behold and accept. It is visually stunning and a complete story everyone can understand, with great drag performances and other spectacles that make this film memorable.
National Anthem screened at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival.

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