As a recent addition to the vast array of independent films running the festival circuit, Spork, opening in Los Angeles on May, 20, shines in many different ways. It has an unusual subject matter, a quirky setting, and a cast almost entirely comprised of highly impressive young actors. It was those three things that drew me to Spork, and those three things that made me really want to like it. Even after I saw it I wanted to like it, and the fact I couldn’t as much as I’d hoped to was genuinely disappointing.
But let’s start with the positives… Spork –- the name for an eating utensil that is both a spoon and a fork -- is about a 13-year-old intersex girl nicknamed Spork (played by Savannah Stehlin) who is constantly bullied at school, but learns to stand up for herself through the power of family, friendship, dance and a small amount of physical violence -- but that’s beside the point.
Spork is a refreshingly new spin on the classic “love yourself no matter what!” theme in that the young protagonist's problem goes beyond wearing glasses or hailing from a poor family -- as outsiders are often depicted in most kid’s films. In fact, try to name five movies with intersex leads! That being said, there’s a lot of subject matter to deal with, and unfortunately only certain aspects -- mostly dealing with teenagers being immature about genitalia -- are touched on. I’m sure writer/director J.B. Ghurman Jr. had the best intentions, but it seems as though he was more fascinated by the unusualness of Spork’s condition than actually making it seem like a part of her. It’s as though she was created by someone who was looking through the windows of her life, but never felt comfortable enough to really step inside and take a look around.
Unfortunately, the same can be said about several of the other characters, none more so than Spork’s best friend Tootsie Roll (Sydney Park), whose every line of dialogue sounds like it was written by a middle-aged white man trying to imagine what a teenage black girl might talk like without ever actually having met one. I truly felt bad for Sydney Park, who did the best she could with what she had, but deserved much more.
In fact, the only character who’s development didn’t somewhat disturb me was Betsy Byotch (played by Rachel G. Fox, and yes, that last name really is Byotch). Betsy’s blonde bitch antagonist is a character that’s been around for years and perhaps no longer requires any fleshing out, although it would have been nice to see that stereotype get some new levels.
In an interview, Ghurman said he wanted his film to feel much like a storybook, and that plays off very well. The color scheme is light, bright, pleasant to the eye, giving it a fairy-tale feeling. Now here’s my question: why does a movie starring children and modeled after a storybook need to involve an R-rating’s worth of swear words? Take out the cursing and genital jokes and Spork could easily be on the Disney Channel. Now, I’m not saying that would ever happen (although I am a strong advocate of the impossibility of Disney having opening gay characters), but it’s unfortunate that I feel uncomfortable recommending it to kids who could benefit from it’s message and story for no reason other than language. It’s certainly not gritty or realistic enough for the “that’s how real kids would talk” excuse, and it doesn’t even make sense when the kids do swear. I understand that a children’s film with an intersex protagonist would be a challenge to sell to kids but, in my opinion, it would have a much more rewarding outcome, or at least a more stable vision.
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Another issue I encountered with Spork was its identification as a musical comedy. Last I checked, having one obviously lip-synched music-video-esque moment does not make something a musical, and movies that are not musicals should not have one oddly placed not-quite-musical number. I kept getting the feeling that Spork had several times been re-written, and instead of one totally coherent storyline, it was instead made up of several from many different drafts. Too many integral plot points randomly swoop out of nowhere and are so underdeveloped that they become annoying. Several other moments seemed to come out of nowhere but Ghurman’s desire to create a “quirky indie” film. For example, Spork keeps her dead dog stuffed in her bedroom because her family didn’t have enough money to bury him, and she didn’t want her brother just throwing the dog out. Now, are we really supposed to believe a professional taxidermy job was less expensive than digging a hole in the backyard, or was having a dead dog as a set piece just too quirky to pass up? Also, in what school on earth would teenage students get away with performing in blackface, as Betsy Byotch’s group does to get back at Spork and her friends? I understand the film lacks a certain basis in reality, but there’s got to be a line somewhere. Too much just didn’t make sense. There are some very rewarding moments toward the end, but even those couldn’t redeem the film’s scattered direction.
I am absolutely sure there will be people out there who enjoy Spork’s brand of quirk and uniqueness, and like I said, I really wanted to be one of them. The cast certainly deserves kudos for their dedication and believability as characters that were hardly believable, and I hope to see their careers continue on a positive path. Savannah Stehlin especially deserves recognition for really bringing Spork to life, and making her questionable life choices actually seem natural. Rachel G. Fox is also incredibly fun to watch, and could easily have a long, prospering film career ahead of her including but not limited to playing the caustic bitch role.
Spork is not a bad movie. I would still recommend it, and I would love to find someone who truly enjoyed it. Indeed, I am still on a mission to enjoy this film, and I hope some of you do. If anything, Spork is not like almost any other movie around today, and that alone is something to be proud of.
Photos courtesy of Spork The Movie LLC