‘Chrissy Judy’ Review: A Black and White Ode to the Fun and Frailty of Queer Friendships

Even if you didn’t know Todd Flaherty had produced, written, directed, and edited “Chrissy Judy” himself, you could tell from his performance that this is quite a self-driven endeavor. More passion than vanity project (Flaherty has written himself a capital-M “messy” protagonist, after all), Flaherty has clearly bet on himself here. And it mostly pays off in what is an unassuming story about the falling out between a pair of “good Judys” — that’s short for best gay friends — that brims with the kind of belabored authenticity that belies a desire to showcase Flaherty’s ambitions as an actor, yes, but also as a budding multi-hyphenate.

The title for Flaherty’s film refers to the twinned friends at the heart of this tale: but where James aka Judy (Flaherty) has a knack for self-delusion he hopes will fuel him into a version of his life where he’ll find stardom as one half of a drag duo, Chrissy (Wyatt Fenner) is, alas, already considering alternative visions for a future that finally puts such a dream to rest. In quite simple terms: Chrissy is fed up. He’s sick of trying to merely get by. He’s eager, it sounds, to let those big-city dreams go and relocate to suburban Philadelphia (imagine the horror!) with his new boyfriend. Instead of finding a supportive ear in his longtime bff, Chrissy comes face to face with a raging narcissist who cannot fathom why anyone would ever let New York (or himself) go for, let’s face it, such a basic life.

Self-involved almost to a fault — allowing Flaherty to really gnaw at Judy’s many grievances with gusto on any given scene — Chrissy Judy’s central figure is left to figure out how to remake himself into a solo act without becoming, in the process, a lonely one. Such pains are what make the backbone of this east coast queer tale, which shuttles between New York City, Philadelphia and Provincetown as Judy tries to find his footing while trying not to implode into himself in the process. Which, he’ll be the first to admit, is hard to do, especially when so much of his identity was so enmeshed with Chrissy’s.

Written with an ear for the campy, bitchy ways in which queens (in and out of drag) talk to one another and weaponize their own misery for carefully honed hits (reads, if you will), “Chrissy Judy” has a comedic cadence that oftentimes suffers from feeling too put-on. There’s a stilted formalism to its aesthetic that feels as tightly wound up as its protagonist (and its lead actor), for better and for worse. Moments when only a spotlight hits Judy (after a drag transformation, say) are striking for their exacting imagery, yes. It’s when the film aims for a looser sensibility (like a summer party down in the outskirts of Philadelphia) that it feels like it struggles to find its rhythm. Flaherty, who even recruited his brother for the film’s cinematography, has written and directed himself a film whose modesty runs up against its ambitious ideals; it doesn’t so much wear its low-budget indie vibe with pride as it repurposes it with fabulous flair as if that were its entire point.

Which is to say there is plenty to admire here, especially as a calling card of sorts — both for its central figure and those he’s recruited in turn. Fenner and Flaherty, who do embody tired and tireless working drag queens not quite ready for prime time (let alone stage time), have solid chemistry even if you are left to wonder what Chrissy and Judy’s rapport might have been like before their relationship was so frayed. It’s elsewhere in the cast that Flaherty finds welcome discoveries, especially in performers who are handily capable of drawing portrayals that move ever so slightly away from the caricatures they’re winkingly called to play. Joey Taranto (impossibly dreamy) and James Tison (hilariously deadpan), for instance, are instantly able to create vivid characters that feel so delightfully specific they leap from the screen and demand more of our attention.

If the unevenness of “Chrissy Judy” doesn’t ever grate or detract from its overall effect, this is because its heart is squarely in the right place. Stories about queer friendships — about the wayward ways in which seemingly intertwined paths can suddenly diverge and derail, combust and collide — are rarely depicted on screens big or small. Therein lies the film’s strengths. Clearly evocative of films like “Frances Ha,” Flaherty’s musings on what it means to grow up and grow out of a friendship is most arresting in its attention to small details, to quiet gestures. Rarely do the titular characters feel most real than when they sit quietly on screen and share little else but a glance, but a nod, but a sigh — when they let go of their mannered selves (a result of a script that can at times feel both under- and overwritten) and simply, as it happens in its wordless yet touching final frame, let themselves be.

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