Several years ago, Todd Stephens wrote an affecting semi-autobiographical script for "Edge of Seventeen," in which a high school youth struggles to accept his homosexuality. Stephens set his story in his native Sandusky, Ohio, which is also where his new film, the tender "Gypsy 83," begins. Once again, Stephens, in his directorial debut, plays affectionate humor against the raw pain that can be the price of being different.
This time Stephens focuses on a pair of outsiders, Gypsy ("Less Than Perfect's" Sara Rue) and Clive (Kett Turton, of "Kingdom Hospital"). Gypsy is a Junoesque 25-year-old wannabe rock star who idolizes Stevie Nicks and dresses accordingly. She works at a parking lot photo-printing booth and lives with her father (John Doe), a musician and a music shop proprietor. With her bold makeup and thrift store finery, Gypsy does stand out, as does her soul mate, Clive, a gay high school student deep into goth with makeup, spiky hair and kinky black outfits. Clive is slight and delicate in contrast to the opulent Gypsy.
They both endure considerable derision from the locals, spend lots of time in graveyards and, wherever they are, they tend to light a store's worth of candles. They are brave and bright but also vulnerable, and they need each other's protection. Their lives are about to change when Clive discovers that the annual "Night of 1,000 Stevies" celebration in New York will take place in a mere four days. Clive insists that they must go and that Gypsy must audition to perform along with myriad other Nicks admirers. It's a tough sell: Beneath her brazen exterior Gypsy is insecure, and she and her father remain devastated by her mother running off 18 years earlier to seek rock stardom in Manhattan, never to succeed but neither to return. But Clive reminds Gypsy that she's forever talking about getting out of Sandusky.
Once they take off in Gypsy's old Trans Am -- bearing a personalized license plate, Gypsy 83, the year her mother departed -- they embark on a journey of self-discovery beyond their imagining. Their first memorable encounter is with a roadhouse chanteuse and karaoke hostess who calls herself Bambi LeBleau (Karen Black, in a role worthy of her), whose singing impresses them deeply. Bambi has a gaudy, dated look but she really is a wonderful lounge singer, unappreciated by a rowdy blue-collar crowd, and she in turn realizes that Gypsy has a real talent once she persuades the girl to perform.
Yet Bambi, initially so captivating to the two, turns out to be not quite what she seems, and unexpected romantic encounters that both Clive and Gypsy experience, presented deftly by Stephens, also prove bittersweet. Yet by the time Clive and Gypsy reach New York they have learned a lot about life and themselves -- about taking chances and about resilience.
Stephens is unafraid of emotional extravagance and plays it against the random cruelty that seems always lying in wait for anyone who deviates from the norm. He had to have inspired much trust in Rue and Turton to take considerable risks, because Gypsy and Clive are constantly inviting embarrassment and humiliation with their unconventional personae. They are tremendously appealing, and under Stephens' direction, Anson Scoville as an Amish runaway and Paulo Costanzo as a closeted gay college fraternity man are also memorable. First with "Edge of Seventeen" and now with "Gypsy 83," it is clear that as a filmmaker Todd Stephens, like his heroes and heroines, is determined to be true to himself.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Adult themes, language, sex and nudity
Sara Rue...Gypsy Vale
Kett Turton...Clive Webb
Karen Black...Bambi LeBleau
Ray Vale...John Doe
Anson Scoville...Zachariah Peachey
A Small Planet Pictures presentation. Writer-director Todd Stephens. From a story by Stephens and Tim Kaltenecker. Producers Karen Jaroneski, Stephens. Executive producers Michael Wolfson, Edgar Lansbury. Cinematographer Gina DeGirolamo. Editor Annette Davey. Music Marty Beller. Costumes Kitty Boots. Production designer Nancy Arons. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
At selected theaters.