Jonathan Wysocki is hopeful audiences will come away from his new movie, “Dramarama,” ready to re-embrace their teenage selves ― even if they “cringe at what they see.”
The new comedy is Wysocki’s debut feature and begins virtual screenings next Saturday as part of Outfest Los Angeles. It stars Nick Pugliese as Gene, a high school drama geek who is struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. His road to self-acceptance, however, contains a number of emotional obstacles, given that he attends a parochial school in the conservative-leaning suburban town of Escondido, California, circa 1994.
On a summer night after graduation, Gene joins four budding thespian friends for a murder-mystery-themed party meant as their last hurrah before college. He intends to use the gathering as an opportunity to tell his pals that he’s gay, but can’t seem to summon the nerve. The handsome Oscar (Nico Greetham) becomes a welcome distraction, while another classmate, Claire (Megan Suri), seems to be harboring a secret of her own.
Speaking to HuffPost, Wysocki said he pored over his own teenage diaries while developing the concept for “Dramarama.” The writer and director also peppered his script with references to ’90s cultural touchstones, such as MTV videos and Winona Ryder films, to ensure the youthful dialogue felt era-appropriate. (Played by Zak Henri, a brooding pizza delivery man named JD is a nod to Christian Slater’s character in 1989’s “Heathers.”)
Of course, “Dramarama” is debuting in the wake of movies like “Love, Simon” and “Booksmart,” both of which centered on LGBTQ teen narratives in ways tailored to a mainstream audience. Wysocki, however, didn’t want his young queer characters to be liberated by a “coming-out” moment.
“I was definitely intent on showing a young person who wants to come out, but ultimately isn’t ready to make that confession ― and have that be OK,” he said. “I also wanted to show two queer friends at very different stages of the coming-out process, where one is at acceptance and the other is far from it. Both of these story points were part of my reality at that age.”
Setting “Dramarama” in 1994, Wysocki wanted to create a snapshot of queer teen life as it was before the broader cultural support that exists today. Hence, he was also adamant that the film take place in Escondido, located about 31 miles north of San Diego, rather than a more progressive enclave like Los Angeles or San Francisco.
“Environment is everything for queer kids ― it affects your self-awareness, your self-worth and your safety,” he said. “For me and my high school peers, no one felt safe coming out in the early ’90s, and doubly so growing up in the conservative place we called home.”
Though Wysocki was excited to see “Dramarama” on the big screen during Outfest Los Angeles, he had to scale back his expectations after the COVID-19 pandemic forced festival organizers to move the 10-day event online. The movie was chosen as one of a series of entires to receive a drive-in screening on Aug. 30. If all goes according to plan, the film will be continue to be added to festivals later this year in hopes of securing a distributor for 2021.
And while “Dramarama” is focused on teens, he sees the film’s depiction of characters with opposing views on religion and sociopolitical issues to have a resounding message for adults too.
“They may disagree and argue, but they don’t cancel each other forever,” he said. “They make amends and keep trying.”
Catch a sneak peek at “Dramarama” below.
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