Themes of abandonment, loneliness and yearning wash through Hard Paint, a hypnotically intimate character study examining a damaged young gay man’s double life as an online sex performer. Brazilian writer-director duo Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon follow their atmospheric but dramatically underpowered 2015 first feature, Seashore, with this equally unhurried but far more emotionally urgent mood piece, acted with naturalness and sensitivity by compelling screen newcomers. The mix of sexual explicitness and incisive social context with melancholy sensuality should put this distinctive work on the radar of queer film specialists beyond the festival circuit.
Set in the co-directors’ hometown of Porto Alegre, Brazil’s southernmost capital, the movie at times recalls Moonlight, not just structurally, in its separately titled three-part breakdown, but also in its moving observation of a vulnerable gay male protagonist in an unaccommodating environment, who is less fragile than he initially appears. However, those similarities are more than likely unintended, as the voice here is very much the filmmakers’ own.
Glows in the dark.
The arresting opening image is a grainy, low-light widescreen frame of Pedro (Shico Menegat), who has fallen asleep naked in front of his webcam while chatroom comments from unseen observers ping on his laptop. Right away, the judgmental gaze — desirous or invasive, concerned, indifferent or contemptuous — is established as an underlying motif. It’s repeated in the silhouetted people looking down out of apartment windows or the nervous glances — sometimes hostile, sometimes ambiguous — directed at Pedro on the street. With his willowy body and mop of unruly curls, he’s an androgynous-looking presence, his otherness viewed as an affront.
The first chapter is named for Pedro’s sister Luiza (Guega Peixoto), who accompanies him to a court hearing resulting from a violent incident some months earlier. She’s preparing to transfer to a journalism job halfway across the country, and the tenderness of their separation is obvious even if Pedro struggles to show it. With their mother long dead and their father even longer out of the picture, Luiza’s departure leaves her college dropout brother in solitude. Before going, she makes him promise to step outside their shabby apartment for a walk each day, even if it’s just for five minutes.
Those dutiful breaks — timed down to the minute on his phone — punctuate the movie as much as the trippy chatroom performances, in which he smears his body in brightly colored iridescent paint and dances (hence the screen name Neon Boy), earning money through more graphic paid private-window sessions. Editor Germano de Oliveira weaves the street scenes and the webcam shows into an undulating rhythm that creates a fluid duality between Pedro’s material and virtual worlds.
When he hears that another chatroom performer, Boy25, is using his neon trick, Pedro contacts him through the site, asking him to quit. That rival is Leo (Bruno Fernandes), for whom the second chapter is named. A professional dancer, Leo is working the sex site to save money for a possible move to Buenos Aires, where he hopes to secure a dance scholarship. He agrees only to use paint in joint online appearances together with Pedro, and their steamy sexual connection makes them a popular double-act.
As Pedro allows himself to be cautiously drawn into Leo’s tight-knit circle of friends, he experiences what it’s like to move freely in a mutual support network. But he also sees again how the city, its windows dotted with “For Sale/Rent” signs, is a place from which people are constantly escaping, leaving friends, lovers and family behind. A woman in Leo’s group whose girlfriend moved away observes that Porto Alegre’s levees are crumbling, causing its buildings to sink a little more every year.
The details of Pedro’s approaching trial eventually surface, at first in quick memory flashes when he’s spotted by former college acquaintances at a party, and then unexpectedly, via Leo, who knows more about his recent history than he revealed.
Having the bruises of their shared experience bring them together more passionately — off-camera as well as on — could have veered into sticky sentiment. But the script’s treatment of homophobia, bullying and even just the unspoken violation of a disapproving gaze feels grounded in authentic experience, as does the beautiful work of the two main actors.
The film is the result of a seven-month rehearsal period, like a complex stage project, which pays off in the fully inhabited performances. Menegat, with his sad eyes and haunted intensity, is a real find, but theater actor Fernandes is equally expressive. Their painted sex shows, with vibrant splashes of color pulsating in the semi-darkened room, have genuine electricity, amplified in the accompanying techno tunes. A mid-performance internet crash provides a welcome moment of humor.
The third and final part, titled Neon Boy, draws the focus back in on Pedro. There are quietly wrenching scenes with his visiting grandmother (Sandra Dani), suggesting that depression runs in the family, and also shocking moments of menace. Those latter scenes are the first time an actual score is noticeably used rather than source music, with agitated strings heightening the drama. The movie remains unpredictable, however, and just as Pedro is revealed to be capable of violence and subject to plummeting sorrow, he’s also ultimately unbroken and resilient.
The proof of that comes after a quiet encounter that leaves much unsaid but is no less emotionally affecting for it. What follows is not the expected desolation but defiant life, encapsulated in a closing shot that’s perfection.
Production companies: Avante Filmes, Besouro Films
Cast: Shico Menegat, Bruno Fernandes, Guega Peixoto, Sandra Dani, Frederico Vasques, Denis Gosh, Camila Falcao, Aurea Baptista, Larissa Sanguine, Ze Adao Barbosa
Director-screenwriters: Marcio Reolon, Filipe Matzembacher
Producers: Filipe Matzembacher, Jessica Luz, Marcio Reolon
Director of photography: Glauco Firpo
Production designer: Manuela Falcao
Costume designer: Maira Flores
Music: Felipe Puperi, Rita Zart, Tiago Abrahao
Editor: Germano de Oliveira
Casting: Filipe Matzembacher, Marcio Reolon
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)