@SXSW: Day Two — 'Down Low' and Lukas Gage Rule!

by Matthew Creith

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday March 18, 2023
Originally published on March 15, 2023

Lukas Gage and Zachary Quinto in "Down Low"
Lukas Gage and Zachary Quinto in "Down Low"  (Source:IMDbPro)

The second day of South by Southwest got off to a hilarious start with the world premiere of "Down Low," the newest dark comedy in sexual exploration starring Lukas Gage and Zachary Quinto. Debuting at the famed ZACH Theatre in Austin, TX, "Down Low" is the feature film directorial debut from Rightor Doyle, well-known for his acting resume in hit shows like "Barry" and for creating the Netflix comedy "Bonding." The movie is boosted by its hilariously warped cast of characters played to perfection by Simon Rex, Judith Light, newcomer Sebastian Arroyo, and Audra McDonald.

After the premiere, most of the cast and the director were on hand to discuss the film in an eccentric Q&A. "Down Low" stars Lukas Gage as a masseuse named Cameron, tasked with giving a happy ending to the sexually repressed Gary, portrayed by Zachary Quinto. Gary is a formerly married father of two living in a sprawling mansion on Long Island, while Cameron is a flamboyant sex worker looking for the next payday. They are opposites, but their witty banter gives the two queer men a connection they cannot deny.

When the aforementioned hand job goes terribly wrong, and Gary admits that he's never been with a man before and that he's terminally ill, Cameron brings it upon himself to become Gary's sherpa into the life of what it's like to be a gay man. He introduces Gary to hookup apps, dancing, and everything queer, but Gary and Cameron's actions have unforeseen consequences when a hookup goes awry. This dark comedy is exemplified by its murderous nature, pop culture references, and willingness to push the envelope at every turn.

Lukas Gage
Lukas Gage  (Source: Instagram)

"Down Low" is as dark as a comedy can get without going off the rails. The two leads are flawless in their roles, most notably Lukas Gage, who co-wrote the screenplay with writing partner Phoebe Fisher. The result is a violent and razor-sharp wit full of references to "The Hours," "Pretty Woman," "Sex and the City 2," and even "Dennis the Menace."

Without giving too much away from the explosive script full of twists, no one could see coming, "Down Low" is a triumphant debut from Rightor Doyle. Adam Crystal's score is bitingly original and accompanies the film's offbeat nature, which mostly takes place within a 24-hour period. Judith Light's role as the nosey neighbor high on Ambien is something audiences have never seen before from the veteran performer, a welcome surprise, to say the least. The film is basically "The Odd Couple" if Oscar and Felix were queer and exceptionally deranged.

At the post-screening Q&A, Lukas Gage confided in the crowd that he and Fisher ended up writing the script's first draft in one weekend. And despite all of the debauchery and the cancer diagnosis depicted in the film, it's hard not to root for these two lead characters as if they were tailor-made for one another.

Biff Wiff and Jake Johnson in "Self Reliance"
Biff Wiff and Jake Johnson in "Self Reliance"  (Source: IMDbPro)

Next on the day's agenda was the premiere of "Self Reliance," one of the festival's headliners debuting at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Austin. The feature film directorial debut of lead actor Jake Johnson is a comedic thrill from start to finish. Johnson stars as a lovable nitwit named Tom, who was dumped by his ex-girlfriend for reasons unknown. Tom lives a mundane life full of tedious work tasks in the office, living with his mother, and frequenting his local Mexican restaurant bar in Los Angeles. One day, real-life actor Andy Samberg rolls up next to Tom in a limo and asks him to get in. He complies because it's Andy Samberg, and why not trust a famous celebrity?

Samberg offers Tom the chance to participate in a real-life game show. Tom reluctantly and confusingly agrees to move forward, meaning he has 30 days to win a $1 million grand prize. The caveat? A team of dark web henchmen are playing along to try to kill Tom before he gets to 30 days. The only way to survive is for Tom to not be alone at any time, which means he must sleep, eat, work out, and go to the bathroom with someone else in close proximity, or else he's subject to being killed at any time.

With a hidden audience and invisible threats watching Tom at every moment of the day and night, the days pile up in quick anticipation. Tom eventually enlists the help of a homeless man named James (actor Biff Wiff) to tag along with him everywhere, which works for a while until it doesn't. Eventually, Tom constructs a Craigslist ad hoping to find other players willing to team up, leading him to meet Anna Kendrick's Maddy. Maddy and Tom bond over being lost souls who are lonely in the world while playing a game that literally has their lives on the line.

"Self Reliance" is deeply funny, imaginative, and whacked out beyond belief. As Tom's family increasingly believes he's going insane due to being dumped by his girlfriend (Natalie Morales) and not dealing with the absence of his father. But as the film progresses, the game becomes more real and comedically threatening, sparking a comparison between survival and interpersonal relationships. It is a true indie in every sense of the word, pulsating with the power of its charming lead in Jake Johnson.

For his first go at directing a feature film, Johnson excels. His brand of knucklehead charm is unmatched as he goes toe-to-toe with real celebrity cameos, Maddy's awkwardness, James' jokes, his sisters' annoyances, and his disbelief in the game he's a contestant in. "Self Reliance" has a funny concept, and Johnson executes it in a convincingly mysterious way.

I viewed "Self Reliance" as a comedic version of David Fincher's "The Game" mixed with a movie like "Punch-Drunk Love." At the film's post-screening Q&A, Johnson explained that he saw it more as "Jacob's Ladder" with some laughs. The movie showcases performances from a plethora of cameos, with Jake Johnson as the fixture at the center of this fun dramedy. The cast includes performances from Anna Kendrick, Biff Wiff, Emily Hampshire, Mary Holland, and Christopher Lloyd, often the highlights in situations where Tom is backed into a corner.