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Reprinted with permission from the Omaha Jewish Press.
JTA. June 20, 2006. The Conrad Boys, a gay Chinese-American Jewish film, was shown at Frameline, San Francisco's 30th annual International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival.
This film is the debut production of 24-year-old writer, star and director, Justin Lo.
Lo, in his first film, looks at 19-year-old Southern Californian Charlie Conrad (played by Lo himself), who following the death of his Chinese Catholic mother is confronted with the improbable responsibility of raising his eight-year-old brother. Sibling rivalry has not prepared Charlie to parent, yet he gives up attending Columbia University to care for Ben.
During this period, Conrad confronts the anxiety of coming out and exploring his gay identity. Enter Jordan, played by Nick Bartzen, a misanthropic, predatory plagiarist, who provides further angst for the audience.
Conrad's brother Ben, played by Boo Boo Stewart, is devastated by his mother's death and acts out at home in Dungeons and Dragons. At school his tension is expressed in pictures and breaking a classmate's nose, and in the dark hours it comes out in nightmares about vampires.
Meanwhile, the boys' remorseful, alcoholic Jewish father, Doug(Barry Shay), returns, dried out, after a six-year absence, to accept responsibility.
Doug goes to temple, fasts on Yom Kippur, atones and seeks redemption and peace by attempting to mend his relationship with his sons--a relationship that included child abuse during Doug's drunken rages. Charlie is almost intractably opposed to the father's return and involvement in their lives, but Ben is more impressionable and needy, and he and his father bond in a warm fashion.
The Conrad Boys voices hope for making the right decisions even after making some horrendous, hurtful wrong ones.
Lo started this project at 20. He spent two years writing the script, five weeks shooting it and 11 months in post-production.
The low-budget indie film features Lo's grandmother, aunt, cousin, and companion Jose Ramirez among the extras. Chelsea Lo, Justin's sister, a USC Music and Business graduate, composed the score. Despite the reliance on family, the film displays a high degree of professionalism.
At the film festival, the audience lined up around the block of the aging Mission district Victoria theater. The main floor and balcony were sold out. The size of the audience dwarfed the New York Newfest premiere in early June.
The Q & A after the film revealed an appreciative and responsive audience, some moved to tears, some identifying with one character or another, all applauding the thoughtful intimacy.
It turns out the film is not 100 percent autobiographical. In real life, Lo has a loving Jewish mother and Chinese father, and a younger sister who all get along just fine. Lo crammed a UCLA Anthropology degree with some summer work at USC Film School and diversions at NYU Tisch School of Drama and Parson's School of Design into the his four-year undergraduate education. He is now working on a Master's degree in professional writing at USC.
This sensitive film explores the intertwined dilemmas of fatherhood, childhood, death, and spiritual and sexual identity. You don't have to be Jewish or gay to appreciate it.