As anyone familiar with life in the Bible Belt can… ahem, “testify”, much of the Southern Baptist culture revolves around religion. Appropriately enough, many of the scenes in the new film “Southern Baptists Sissies” take place in a church. It is in that setting that we hear one of the earliest lines by one of the four titular characters: “For God so loved the world! Ironic, huh, because THIS is where we learned to hate ourselves.” As you may have guessed, the powerful and often controversial themes of being a Southern Baptist, of being gay, and of how the two inevitably collide are explored in the film. The result is laugh-out-loud hilarious and cry-out-loud heartbreaking, often at the same time. The audience is moved when the characters describe their struggles with their relationship with the Church. Yet, just when things get too serious, we are treated to the hilariously boozy banter between barflies Odette (Dale Dickey) and Preston, AKA “Peanut” (Leslie Jordan) at a gay bar. An example is when Jordan, in his inimitable style, delivers the one-liner: “I’m just a social drinker. You have a drink, ‘so-shall’ I!” Another is when a religious hymn segues into the drinking classic “99 Bottles of Beer”. The long-anticipated film version of Del Shores‘ provocative play is now playing, with much acclaim, on the film festival circuit. The movie may well be the playwright/culture vulture’s most precious work to date. He wrote, directed, and produced the movie, which was incarnated as a filmed live performance. However, there’s more to it: The story itself is also a deeply personal project. Viewers who are familiar with Shores’ life– specifically, his Bible Belt upbringing– will likely see the main character of Mark Lee Fuller (Emerson Collins) to be largely based on the teenage Shores himself.
“Southern Baptist Sissies” opens with what seems like a “Saturday Night Live”-style musical parody: While a preacher gives a fire-and-brimstone style sermon, four young men (Mark, Benny, TJ, and Andrew) sing a hilariously corny religious song. The quartet of young men are “four sissies in the Cavalry Baptist Church” (four out of 40 boys, incidentally…). The film chronicles the different pathways each of these boys take on their journey of self-discovery in the Southern Baptist world. It’s a world where, for example, one character who asks “How can love be wrong?” is given the deadpan answer, “Because God SAYS it is!” Even one of the boys who seems to be the most well-adjusted of the four, Benny (William Belli), speaks about how his culture is part of him: “Being raised Baptist is like some kind of chromosome or something. It’s engrained– part of my fabric, part of my makeup.” Still, Benny finds some level of transcendence in doing drag, and it is to the audience’s delight that he does. As “Iona Traylor”, Benny’s drag persona, Belli’s high-energy spiritual numbers really liven up the movie, as does the play/movie’s musical zenith, “Stained Glass Window”. Sadly, not all the boys find their niche in this story. The dramatic climax of “Southern Baptist Sissies” involves another character’s conflict of faith ultimately leading to tragic consequences.
The film, like the play it was based on, will likely be considered controversial– not only because of its unflinching exploration of religion and sexuality, but also because of one character’s self-described “blasphemous” revelation about how his first same-sex crushes were Jesus and Elvis (“King of the Jews” and the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”). Still, the character’s confessions are so keenly funny that it’s hard to be offended. Like Del Shores’ one-man live shows, the humor in “Southern Baptist Sissies” is always based on our culture’s own idiosyncrasies– not the least of which is our culture’s ownhypocrisy. We want to “keep the faith”, and want to believe that “Southern Baptist Sissies” will have some kind of resolution: some sense that the characters’ suffering has a promissory ray of hope at the end. Indeed, the movie ultimately makes good on its promise, but it tears your heart apart in the process. Luckily, it also tickles the funny bone just when you need it the most.
“Southern Baptist Sissies” is now playing in select theaters. Visit https://www.facebook.com/events/396066143863852/ for locations and showtimes!