The film, which opens at the Ritz today, is struck from the same mold as Polk’s hit “Noah’s Arc.” But there is one significant difference: “The Skinny” features various public-service announcements for gay men (and women) regarding safe-sex practices.
Throughout the film there are instructive scenes as characters discuss how to douche for anal sex, the importance of condoms, the risks of HPV, the need for PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) and why it’s critical to be tested and re-tested for HIV.
Polk may be sermonizing, but the messages he wants to send demand attention. The rates of HIV in the African-American community, expressed in a post-end credit announcement, testify to this.
The story is entertaining even with the many didactic moments. As “The Skinny” opens, Magnus (Jussie Smollett) is five months into his relationship with Ryan (Dustin Ross). The couple has agreed to wait to have sex, but Magnus is horny now, even initiating some heavy petting while his college friends listen at the door. Kyle (Anthony Burrell), the “whore,” Sebastian (Blake Young-Fountain), the “virgin,” Joey (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), the shy, sarcastic one and Langston (Shanika Warren-Markland), the smart lesbian, are not keen on Ryan when they all meet. They don’t think this thug type is Magnus’ type. When they discover Ryan online looking for a hook-up for a sex party, Kyle arranges to meet him there so Magnus can confront his cheating boyfriend in the act.
The break-up causes Magnus heartache, but his friends help him through. Magnus, in turn, helps his friends with their issues as well. In the dramatic storyline, Sebastian hopes lose his virginity to Kyle over the weekend. In the comic subplot, Joey and Langston both pine for potentially unavailable partners, a stripper and a bartender, respectively, at the club they visit during their New York trip. The camaraderie among friends and lovers is what comes across best in this agreeable low-budget film.
“The Skinny” uses the thin plot strands to get across Polk’s non-sexual messages about love and trust in friendships and relationships, but most of the film is focused on lecturing about safe sex. Sebastian’s goal of seducing Kyle backfires when he ends up in a dangerous situation. Polk’s intention here is to make viewers aware of the potential consequences of sex, and a speech by both a nurse (“Noah’s Arc” star Darryl Stephens in a nice cameo) and a doctor (Wilson Cruz) outline treatments for Sebastian following his possible exposure to HIV.
While the film has serious moments, it also features erotic and comic scenes. For all the preaching about responsibility for one’s body, Polk allows his characters to act on their desires. There is copious skin on display during a passionate tryst in the nightclub bathroom and during the sex party. There is also some amusing banter between Langston and Joey as each try to find a partner and get laid.
“The Skinny” also celebrates gay African-American history with scenes set at Harlem Pride, and an early episode in which the gang visits the “sacred, hallowed ground” that is Langston Hughes’ New York apartment.
If the film gets a bit contrived in its efforts to wrap up the various storylines in 90 minutes, Polk does have viewers rooting for its characters to find love and happiness — or at least peace with those who wronged them.
The actors each give engaging performances. The likable Smollett provides the necessary gravitas in the central role. He makes Magnus’ appropriate responses to Ryan’s bad behavior and Sebastian’s unfortunate predicament heroic. Likewise, Yong-Fountain is sympathetic as Sebastian, an idealist who gets a rude awakening. Only Burrell, who plays Kyle, seems to have difficulty in his role — this is mostly in the last act, when his character makes a regrettable decision. His guilt and shame are not entirely palpable here. Burrell is much better in the first two-thirds of the film where his character is mostly required to be sexy and charming, which he does well.
“The Skinny” nimbly mixes sex and messages about sex — with a good beat. Polk also performs nearly a dozen songs on the film’s soundtrack, proving that he can sing as well as write and direct.