‘Our Son’ Review: A Moving, Turbulent Gay Marriage Story With Heart And Humor – Tribeca Festival

“How do people do this?” asks well-to-do New York book publisher Nicky (Luke Evans) in a state of exasperation. Nicky is in the thick of a bitter custody battle for his eight-year-old son Owen (Christopher Woodley), after Gabriel (Billy Porter), his partner of 13 years, has decided to call time on their relationship. It’s a well-worn premise in mainstream cinema — essayed most recently by Noah Baumbach’s acerbic Marriage Story, and still portrayed most famously in Robert Benton’s 1979 weepie Kramer vs. Kramer — but gay cinema has been slow to tackle the issue. With his second movie, the follow-up to the 2018 sci-fi Jonathan, Bill Oliver corrects that oversight with a beautifully judged human drama that dissects a dying marriage with humor and intelligence, drawing out an especially open and moving performance from Porter.

The most noticeable thing about Oliver’s film, which he co-scripted with regular collaborator Peter Nickowitz, is the sense of calm that prevails, to the extent that the first rift comes seemingly out of nowhere. Returning from a friend’s dinner party, where Nicky accuses Gabriel of mollycoddling Owen, Gabriel reveals that he has met someone else, someone he has “real feelings” for. Stunned, Nicky decides to sleep on it, and the next day Gabriel meets his lover, Will, for sex, as he has been doing on the sly for the last few months. This time, though, Gabriel declares his true feelings, and Will, unwilling to make himself emotionally available to a married man, ends the relationship.

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The genie, however, is out of the bottle, and Gabriel can’t put it back: Nicky just isn’t there for him anymore. “You don’t get it,” he says. “You don’t get how lonely I’ve been. I wanted a family. I got Owen — but I didn’t get a family.”

Nicky, who is Owen’s biological father through a mixture of IVF and surrogacy, is blindsided, and from here the film takes an interesting path through the war that follows. Initially, sympathies lie with Gabriel, the would-be actor who parked his career for his lover, then there’s a slight shift towards Nicky as the besotted breadwinner. Both characters are sketched with such care and depth that, when hostilities finally break out, they are both grounded and relatable: both men come with deeply embedded father issues that they seem hellbent on projecting onto each other.

Initially quite irritating, the couple’s social group — an ominous mix of ages, gender identities and races, bantering in the cheerful style of a Pride Month bank commercial — become surprisingly endearing in this respect, offering advice and perspectives that gild the film with a sense of lived experience. Nicky’s ex Matt, a social worker, notes that when Gabriel fell in love with his baby boy, Nicky fell by the wayside. “If it hadn’t been so sweet, it would have been tragic,” he notes dryly. “And now it is tragic.”

Through it all, Oliver keeps things on a steady keel, even when the lawyers come and especially when Nicky decides on the nuclear option, which involves suing for full-time custody. Even here, the film is forensically fair about the options: a working parent suing for 50-50 custody is likely to be asking for more time than they can deliver (and as an aside, the script raises the difficulties of second-parent adoption for same-sex couples).

Evans and Porter have an easygoing chemistry that adds a genuine sense of anticipation to the climax. Their marriage is dead, that much is clear, but how will they move on? Especially after the bickering has left so many emotional scars (talking of Gabriel’s “promising” acting career, Nicky replies, “He was doing summer stock upstate, c’mon”). The dialogue is pretty good in this regard, with little grandstanding and no thought for the Oscar moment, which could, ironically, stand it in good stead come awards season.

The strongest line, however, comes from Nicky’s nephew at an awkward family dinner. “Uncle Nicky, he says, “It must be hard fighting for the right to marry and then ending up in the divorce court like everyone else.” It gets a laugh, but there’s real weight to those words, and Oliver’s film reflects the surreal what-just-happened moment in the lives of every lover, gay or straight, caught off-guard by life’s bitter ironies.

Title: Our Son
Festival: Tribeca (Spotlight Narrative)
Director: Bill Oliver
Screenwriters: Peter Nickowitz and Bill Oliver
Cast: Billy Porter, Luke Evans, Robin Weigert, Christopher Woodley, Andrew Rannells, Isaac Powell, Phylicia Rashad
Running time: 1 hr 44 min
Sales agent:  CAA

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