Directed by John Cameron Mitchell
Starring Sook-Yin Lee, PJ DeBoy and Paul Dawson
Shortbus shows real sex—not just the acts, but also their implications for characters struggling to make sense of their respective, and unconventional, preferences. The film could be considered pornographic, and yet its intent is not primarily prurient: sexual adventures are freighted with emotional import, and substantive dialogue is interlaced with and dependent upon the real on-screen action.
The term “shortbus” is typically a reference to the school bus normal kids didn’t ride. In the film, Shortbus is a multi-room meeting place for people, says “hostess” Justin Bond, who don’t fit on “the big yellow bus” of sexuality. The characters—“the gifted and challenged,” as Bond calls them— include a married sex therapist (Sook-Yin Lee) who cannot achieve an orgasm and a gay couple comprising an ex-child star (PJ DeBoy) and an ex-male prostitute (Paul Dawson) considering whether to open their relationship to a third person. There’s also a deliberately obtuse dominatrix—at one point she smokes a cigarette in a sensory deprivation tank—who masks her craving for normalcy by pathologically controlling her environment. Later, a young male model (Jay Brannan) appears, drifting into the gay couple’s relationship, strengthening it rather than driving a wedge between them. A voyeur who’s watched the couple for years then matches the model’s contribution.
If any of this seems strange to you, well, it’s only Shortbus’ surface. The fictional drama portrays every kind of intimacy imaginable, all against a tableau of frustrated and incommunicative individuals.
Set to an original score by Yo La Tengo, Shortbus is both stylish and forthrightly affecting. Characters’ flaws are involving and their attempts to remediate them as honest in their frailty as they are tragic in their insufficiency. The result manages drama without melodrama, a genuine and empathic portrayal of complicated lives and the hang-ups and breakthroughs that make them interesting.