Ash Christian’s Petunia may be the most cynically hilarious, slightly offensive film I have ever seen. At Frameline35, Christian’s Mangus! was far from our previous year’s students cup of tea with its crass characters and verging-on-uncomfortable commentary on disabilities. Petunia was very much the same; only insert off-color rape jokes and addiction running the gamut from sex to drugs. Don’t get me wrong, this film was brilliant, but critiquing it with the same bite is almost necessary.
With that said, I did adore this film and want to shed more positive light on this delightfully eccentric film. “This darkly funny film is full of sardonic wit and cleverness that is most welcome in a world grounded in sex appeal and oppression,” Michael Federspiel impeccably states. It’s not to say that all Queer Cinema is this dark art form, but, in more ways than one, Petunia was a breath of fresh air. Charlie, a socially awkward celibate man (snapping rubber bands on the wrist and all), finds himself at the epicenter of an overwhelmingly quirky cast of characters and a family that, despite their very bland and pastel last name of Petunia, gives new meaning to dysfunctional.
Bridget Oliver notes that the film “so very well meshed together the neuroses and problems of every family member and their respective significant others.” Typically, characters become flat when there are networks like this, losing sense of self and becoming stock for one specific trait. Thankfully Christian and his co-writer, Theresa Bennett, did not fall prey to this. They did not, for example, tokenize Charlie as a gay man or his mother as the nagging therapist mother. Rather they developed identity through humor and heart; Charlie eventually becomes involved in a complex relationship with his lover George and his wife, Robin, as part of their open marriage. His mother releases sexual frustration through shattering plates (and promptly throwing herself on her husband, also a therapist) and taking ecstasy with her daughter-in-law at a club approximately thirty years too young for her. To say the least, Petunia has some beautifully strange intricacies worth watching. This was quite a story and one that does, in the end, have a perfectly happy, queer ending you’ll have to see for yourselves.