Apr 282016

The Guys Next Door is about gently opening hearts and minds: it delicately demonstrates through one small story how easy it would be to recognize our common humanity.

The Guys Next Door, directed by Amy Geller and Allie Humenuk. Screening at the Independent Film Festival Boston at The Somerville Theater, Somerville, MA, on May 1 at 2:15 p.m.

A scene from "The Guys Next Door."

A scene from “The Guys Next Door.”

By Tim Jackson

The Guys Next Door, by local filmmakers Amy Geller (who is married to Arts Fuse film critic Gerald Peary) and Allie Humenuk, is a documentary that, like its title, underplays high drama for the sake of displaying a big heart. In an ideal world this story of two happy families could be set in Anywhere, USA. The situation is, of course, more complicated. Erik and Sandro are a gay married couple raising a daughter birthed by their friend, Rachel, who lives in Newton, is in her forties, and already has three teenagers of her own. She has agreed to act as a birth mother (“gestational carrier”) for the couple not once but twice and a daughter is on the way. Rachel’s own family appears remarkably at ease with pregnancies and births. Erik and Sandro are loving and doting parents and the two families form a unique bond. Aside from parenting, Erik is a psychotherapist, clinical social worker, and mitigation specialist. In his job he visits prisons and deals with tough cases, often traveling for days at a time. Sandro, who is Italian by birth, is a writer and has lived all over the world. He works out regularly, sports a killer smile, and has an instinct for nurturing.

Erik’s travels for work often leaves Sandro with the exhausting task of raising two small daughters. What they cope with as parents is universal, but the circumstances are far from typical. The film strikes a balance between these two ideas: humanizing and celebrating the courage and commitment of both surrogate motherhood and non-traditional fatherhood while exploring personal issues of being gay in a changing, but still mostly traditional, society. Oft-discussed problems of coming out, particularly to one’s parents, are reflected in voice over while we witness the ordinary joys and chores of balancing work and family. What makes the film so appealing is that Erik and Sandro are such a charismatic, emotionally honest and well-spoken couple.  Their domestic experiences are shot in colorful locations around New England and Sardinia. Allie Humenuk’s gorgeous cinematography and use of natural light adds a touch of romanticism.

Following the devastating death of Erik’s brother’s wife in Portland, Maine the two men are drawn north, where they can foster a deeper sense of community in raising their daughters. Their lives become as conventional as any other. Says Erik: “You put Sandro in a wig and heels and we are the most traditional family you can imagine, but it’s just not that easy. Two men raising two girls … all the gender stuff. It’s variously very important and meaningless.”

That statement is key to the film’s charm. The filmmakers follow the couple for three years through, during, and after the birth of the second child. The film normalizes the politics of gay marriage and surrogate motherhood, focusing on what is elemental and essential: life, love, family, and mutual commitment. The absence of neon-lit turmoil and drummed-up conflict is refreshing. There have been and are documentaries that examine the considerable challenges and struggles of gay life. LGBT identities are too often conflicted. Geller and Humenuk have done something different here: they show us that families are families everywhere and that drama can be found in the give and take of the everyday. The Guys Next Door is about gently opening hearts and minds: it delicately demonstrates through one small story how easy it would be to recognize our common humanity.

Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.


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