Jonny is a young man wrestling with his inner self. As his mother’s “joy boy,” he was a precocious, flamboyant child who loved to perform, though he faced some wariness from his conservative family.
As he grew up, he rose in his evangelical church to become a leader, with a girlfriend and an ability to compel and dazzle an audience. But as he goes through conversion therapy, he revisits pivotal moments of his life, tracing his journey — and learning to embrace his whole self.
Directed by Stef Smith from a script co-written with Jonny Hawkins (who also heads the cast in the lead role), this ambitious short drama packs in a bold array of tones, ideas and events in its wild, freewheeling ride of a narrative, which spans a wide period of time and a vast emotional terrain as its titular character grapples with his emerging sexuality, his family and faith and ultimately his sense of self.
The story starts with an indelible moment from Jonny’s life, as the young boy enlivens a boring adult dinner with a performance patterned after Marilyn Monroe’s rendition of “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy. The camera notes the adults’ varied reactions, but then the storytelling hopscotches to a grown-up Jonny leading a worship service at his church. He’s still a terrific, bold performer, but he’s fully immersed in the church now — and deeply in the closet.
The structure of the story eschews a linear approach, weaving back and forth between flashes of memories, conversations with his girlfriend and stolen images of love. It’s an ambitious and multi-layered approach to storytelling, especially for a short, but it works as a prism-like, impressionistic portrait of someone being pulled by several different influences into opposing directions.
This multi-dimensional approach is mirrored by an accomplished set of visuals that reflect each period of Jonny’s life with a distinctive look and feel. His childhood has a faded, almost vintage-looking warmth and softness, while his time in the church as a worship leader has a sharp, almost clinical sheen. Through it all, actor Hawkins (and his younger counterpart George Holahan-Cantwell) anchor us with a performance as a boy who was supremely self-expressed but lost his way trying to fit into a box that denied his essential nature. Staying in that box has a cost, but what Jonny gains in moving out of it is immeasurable.
Based on a true story, “Joy Boy” is a whirlwind of color, glitter and mood, and there are many alluded events and evocative images that beg for expansion and exploration. But it also knows when to slow down and let viewers experience the shifts in consciousness that make up Jonny’s journey. As it does, it becomes a sincere, warmhearted story about self-acceptance, self-love and finding joy — a journey many of us are on, in a world that often asks us to be small until the inner urgency of our authentic voices can’t be denied.