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Counting for Thunder: Phillip Irwin Cooper's southern Gothic gay interlude



When Phillip Stolworth tells his girlfriend that he is heading home to Alabama, she says she thought of "Climbing into your knapsack and stowing away on your trip back to Tennessee Williams land." He is leaving behind a failing acting career and a job as a personal assistant that he bitterly hates. He is returning home because his mother, who has been in and out of institutions, has just received a fatal diagnosis of lung cancer. The right ingredients for southern Gothic dark comedy/drama but Counting for Thunder is Tennessee Williams-lite.

Writer/director/star Phillip Irwin Cooper drawls out the intermittent voiceover narration, and it is quirky, intimate and atmospheric. The main metaphors are introduced and the characters put into play. Secrets will be revealed and we are primed for the thunder promised in the title. The southern belle mother, Mariette Hartley, is self-consciously eccentric but, of course, full of unexpected depths and life lessons. All of the characters are prone to elliptical poetic conversations and suppressed emotions.

The repression is lifted when Phillip begins a gay relationship with high school acquaintance Joe Tischman. Joe is a free-spirited carpenter and he woos Phillip, releasing some of his inhibitions. Played by Peter Stebbings (who has been a fixture in Canadian television and film since he was 12), Joe is sweet, unconventionally sexy and, from his first appearance, destined to be a sacrificial victim. It is utterly charming to see two men who are not models and not teenagers, navigating love and some very discreet sex. It would have been emotionally fulfilling to feel their passion.

That is the point and the pitfall of Counting for Thunder. Cooper is interested in the moments between the thunder and the lightning, in how most of life is lived. It is amiable and affecting but the dramatics are sorely missed. One keeps hoping for Hartley, who is very good but very grounded, to launch into an aria of seething southern sturm und drang a la Blanche Dubois or Devereaux. John Heard, excellent as always, builds to a confrontational scene, but the characters walk away from it. Everyone is subtle, strong and quirky. If only they had been given the chance to be outrageous and flamboyant.

It may be a southern stereotype, but I found myself hoping that Leslie Jordan would wander by from the town of Sordid Lives or Osage County, to inject some actual thunder and lightning. Cooper is forced to include a few too many reaction shots where he laughs uproariously in order to cue the audience as to how we should be reacting. It is a shame because otherwise he is a very appealing protagonist. The metaphors wrap up just a little too neatly but the ending is left ambiguous, again realistic, tastefully artistic, but not satisfyingly dramatic.

But Counting for Thunder does accomplish its ulterior motives. The film is more than a little autobiographical and got its first incarnation when Cooper rebooted his acting career (his biggest role was in Death Becomes Her) by performing Counting for Thunder as a one-man show. The tension of watching him incarnate all 23 characters would have provided the lightning strikes that the film lacks - though it would have deprived Hartley of a role that in a fair universe will get her attention and work beyond TV (Murder She Wrote's "Night of the Coyote) guest shots. 

Counting for Thunder is an assured, beautifully shot calling card and hopefully Cooper can parlay it into a second and then third feature. And hopefully he doesn't just count for thunder, but let's it thunder.

Counting for Thunder is released via Wolfe Video on Tues, May 2 on DVD and VOD including iTunes, Vimeo On Demand,