“You were such a good actor; what happened to you?”
“Who the fuck knows, huh?”
According to one of the characters in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, winter is the season of alcoholism and despair, but for washed-up actor Jeremy Dayton (Jamie Gillis), it seems the season is not the catalyst. Bobby Sox is the tale of Dayton’s sojourn to a small, unspecified town in the US, and the effect of his presence on the apparently closed community he encounters.
Arriving in town to promote their latest movie, the world weary Dayton and his promoter Cully (Jon Dough) immediately set about looking for a girl; however, their intention is not (solely) to assuage the loneliness associated with travelling artists, but rather to find an accomplice for an elaborate publicity stunt. In ‘My Alien, My Love’, our errant hero plays the titular alien, and the two have decided to stage an abduction in order to raise awareness of the film. Unfortunately, things don’t go to plan, and when the critical moment arrives Dayton is too inebriated to carry his ‘victim’ and the stunt descends into chaos. To make matters worse, Sheri (Nikki Tyler) – the accommodating victim – happens to be the girlfriend of local ‘bad boy’ Nick (Steven St Croix), and the association introduces jealousy into their already-volatile relationship; so much so, that after a particularly heated row, he resolves to implicate Dayton in the kidnapping of a local waitress (Chloe).
Perhaps it’s indicative of his success, but Paul Thomas – or more accurately, his work – seems to be reviled and revered in equal measure. Be that as it may, it’s difficult to dispute his skill as a film-maker and – shorn of its sex scenes – Bobby Sox wouldn’t look out of place on prime time television. This might sound like faint praise but, given the impoverished standards of most adult movies, it’s no small achievement. Of course, it’s worth remembering that film-making is a collective endeavour and Raven Touchstone’s screenplay is crucial to the success of the film. Indeed, as if his own film weren’t evidence enough, the director has suggested that it would be well-suited to a mainstream treatment. Again, this might also sound like faint praise because most mainstream movies are as formulaic as their adult counterparts. Nevertheless, I think Thomas’ comments are quite insightful. There’s a nostalgic tone to Bobby Sox that would likely find favour with mainstream audiences. Although it appears to take place in the present (My Alien, My Love evokes the monster movies of the 50’s but videotapes and computers are both used during the film), it portrays a simpler way of life that will appeal to many, an imagined past in which kids hang out at the pool-hall.
Although really quite straight forward, this is very sophisticated by adult standards and calls to mind the Golden Age films of the ’70’s and ’80’s. The introduction of an unnatural element – specifically, the arrival of two relatively exotic characters – is the spark that ignites the narrative but it’s also thematically significant. There’s no escaping the fact that it’s the outsiders who disturb the equilibrium of small-town life – not only by their presence but also by their behaviour. Dayton is obviously the most significant factor here, and could be argued to embody decline on more than one level. His alcoholism and cross-dressing, for example, stand in marked contrast to a community which appears to be free of dugs, poverty and other contemporary ills. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that both Dayton and Cully wear sunglasses during the film’s opening scenes, visually differentiating them form the townsfolk at the very outset.
Sociological considerations aside, the real strength of Bobby Sox resides in the acting. Thomas was able to assemble an outstanding cast – probably the best he’s ever worked with – and the results must have been extremely gratifying. Gillis received an AVN award for his portrayal of Jeremy Dayton, and deservedly so. Twenty years on from signature performances in the likes of The Story of Joanna and Through The Looking Glass, he brings a sense pathos and perversion to the part of the flawed, fallen star. But Bobby Sox is essentially an ensemble piece and it would be unwise to underestimate the contributions of the supporting cast. Steven St Croix, who had already done sterling work for John Leslie (among others), is a little old for the role of the leather-clad hoodlum but matches Gillis stride-for-stride in the acting stakes. The performance of Nikki Tyler, who’s not generally noted for her acting ability, is less predictable but equally notable, and implants aside, she’s completely persuasive as the glamorous small-town girl. Shanna McCullough, Jon Dough and the under-appreciated Bobby Vitale, although only supporting players here, also contribute considerably to the credibility of the whole.
In spite of the above, Bobby Sox is not without its faults and probably won’t be remembered as Paul Thomas’ masterpiece. Peculiar as it may sound, for a film that incorporates abduction, addiction, bondage and discipline, it lacks real drama. Bobby Sox takes place in an idealised environment, in a world where good triumphs over evil and addiction withers in the light of love. Although gritty realism was clearly not the aim, the neatness with which problems are resolved isn’t going to sit easily with everyone. The perennial problem of pacing also rears its ugly head on a couple of occasions. For one, Jon Dough’s seduction of Chelsea Blue and Jenteal occurs before the narrative has really had a chance too establish itself, and the interlude involving Kimberly Kummings and two hapless cops – a distraction designed to enable Dayton to escape their custody – also seriously outstays its welcome.
Despite a couple of missteps, Bobby Sox is an extremely accomplished adult film and as accessible as anything the genre has to offer. It’s both thematically and aesthetically conservative (bear in mind this was the year after Latex and Fresh Meat) but that’s not a criticism in itself – indeed, it’s central to the film’s appeal. With its superior acting and (ultimately) life-affirming air, it actually reminds me of Chuck Vincent’s (attempted) crossover films. Of course, they’re generally considered to have been failures – not a label you could easily apply here.