Starring: Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Kelly Sry, Brian Huskey, Max Adler, Tonya Cornelisse, Clayton Rohner, and David Arquette
Story by: Zack Newkirk & Lucas Heyne, David C. Hill, and Michael Louis Albo
Written by: Zack Newkirk & Lucas Heyne
Directed by: Lucas Heyne
“Some guys think it’s beneath them, but in reality, they aren’t strong enough to handle it.”
Mope is kind of a hard movie to pin down. At certain points, you are convinced it’s a lurid dramatization of a bizarre true crime. At others, you are pretty sure it is a stunningly funny rebuke of toxic masculinity. Then you think maybe it’s a tragic love story between two men desperate to connect with the world. BUT, the best part is that it’s really all of the above, because Mope is absolutely tremendous.
A fearless and dreamy debut feature from director Lucas Heyne, Mope tells the true, tragic story of Steve Driver and Tom Dong, two low-end porn actors (or “mopes” as they are known in the industry) who connect with one another and dream of stardom. Obviously, that doesn’t happen. Though it seems, on paper, to have a seedy premise, Heyne’s direction and script, co-written with Zack Newkirk (which was given a further authenticity by working from a story from the journalists who first reported this insane tale) mines real empathy and drama from this story. It transforms what could have been ready-made exploitive fare into proper human drama, making the horror of this tale all the more sadder. Often cringe-inducing, hilarious, and melancholy, Mope is a real winner.
We open on a room full of men, all quietly jerking off and literally awaiting a green light to cum. Not exactly the most auspicious of starts, but director Lucas Heyne has far more than just titillation on his mind. Heyne states up front with this scene that this film, despite being about porn and dealing directly with the adult film industry, cannot be less concerned with titillating you. This scene is his thesis statement on the character of Steve Driver, played with white-hot intensity by Misfits’ Nathan Stewart-Jarrett. Here Steve is just one of a dozen “bukkake boys,” which sounds about like what you would imagine. But something in Steve is driving him to be more, do more, despite his physical limitations. Limitations that include a small dick and tendency to not shower.
After a semi-disastrous shoot, he meets the demure, but trade-skilled Tom Dong (Kelly Sry, who provides stable, rock-solid energy in contrast to Stewart-Jarrett’s livewire performance). The two quickly strike of a friendship over their “fandom” of porn. This then develops into a dangerously codependent partnership, both on and off-screen. Those familiar with the case will know where this heads, but the whole journey to get there is a total rollercoaster.
For one thing, Heyne’s handheld shooting style adds a natural, almost documentarian vibe to the whole thing. Better still, the script is really good at “showing” and not “telling.” Allowing for bits of story to be telegraphed either by the actors themselves or by smallish bits of business in the scene itself. Overall, the whole movie feels very naturalistic, allowing the actors room to emote and interact to great success.
For another, Heyne and Newkirk’s script keeps slowly building to its deadly finale. Brought to life by a stable of game performers, including those from the real porn industry (including the infamous Ultima DVD, which this film is based around). The script throws both cringe comedy and working-class drama into a blender. Ending up a worthy mixture of both, just with the added bonus of a mental health-based pressure cooker brewing in Steve’s mind. I know it sounds a bit heavy, but it is a ride worth taking with a truly stellar cast.
And what a group of actors Heyne has assembled here. Anchored by a barely contained Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, who finds empathy behind the quickly unraveling Steve, Mope is filled with fantastic performances. Ones that rise above the seediness of their stations to present them as real, living people behind the “porn industry” stereotypes. Kelly Sry is the “true north” of the movie, standing as “the straight man” for Steve’s increasing delusions of grandeur. It could have been a thankless part. But Sry’s calming, almost maternal energy provides a neat font of normal amid the weirdos. Adult Swim alum Brian Huskey also impresses as the ruthless head of Ultima, Eric. Somehow, Huskey manages to be both hilarious and menacing, sometimes within the same scene, bringing the same seriousness that makes his comedy so funny to features with great effect.
Though sometimes this film can get unbearably uncomfortable to watch, Mope displays an audacity that one can only get with debut features. Armed with a naturalists’s eye and raw emotions, Zack Newkirk and Lucas Heyne, along with a wonderful crew of actors, deliver an empathetic and all-too-human take on a normally sneered upon section of the “industry,” telling this story with grace, eschewing a more lurid, populist take on the story to present something honest.