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By Doug Brunell | March 22, 2008

Shot and directed with all the skill of a 1980s era CBS made-for-television-movie, “In the Company of Strangers” attempts to tell the tale of a young man’s journey from a homophobic basher to an enlightened soul. Oddly enough, it kind of works.

Ben Perry is Brian, a blue collar guy (because office executives never crack “f*g” jokes) whose favorite activities involve drinking and beating gay guys with his friends (whose only contribution to the plot is that they are sexist and homophobic — which often do go hand in hand for some strange reason). Brian is caught by police one day, but instead of going to jail, he’s sentenced to community service in an AIDS hospice. Obviously Brian doesn’t like this idea, but through the miracle of moviemaking he comes to learn that gay men are just “guys” like anyone else.

There are two scenes in this movie that when taken together really sum up homophobia quite well. The first scene occurs when Brian and his friends beat the snot out of two men leaving a gay bar. Gay slurs are used, fists fly and blood flows. Jump forward a bit and we find the next scene.

In the hospice, one of the residents has a seizure. A paramedic tosses Brian latex gloves and tells him to grab the guy’s legs and help pull him out of the bathroom. (The seizure victim, it should be noted, is wearing jeans.) Brian does this, but not before much hesitation. Afterwards he is shown compulsively washing his hands despite the fact that he wore gloves and only touched the man’s jeans. He tells one of the hospice staff that he “doesn’t want to die.”
Someone really needs to explain why homophobic men will think nothing out of beating gay men (who, according to the rules of homophobia, are all AIDS carriers) until both the attacker and victim are bleeding, but won’t touch gay men for fear of getting AIDS.

Those two scenes, inadvertently or not, show that director/writer Thomas Hofbauer understands the core concepts of homophobia. The rest of the movie proves he has a grasp of the concept of personal change. It’s a pity, however, that he didn’t handle these things with a bit more subtlety and less melodrama of the most obvious sort.

“In the Company of Strangers” is not the most technically sound of films. The story and characters could use plenty of work, too, but it does keep viewers engaged on a certain level and doesn’t come off as totally unbelievable. Brian’s transformation from a homophobic, thick-headed a*****e to a caring, logical guy may seem a bit rushed, but it also seems plausible, which is essential for this type of film. It’s still sappy and a little too much like a television movie complete with the happy, pat ending, but it also doesn’t aspire to be anything else, and that lack of aspiration works for it.

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