National Anthem. The Land of The LGBT.

National Anthem

The American West has laid host to the multifarious dreams and aspirations of the nation over and over again, its vast plains, deserts and vistas a great canvas to paint your future upon. This is especially true in the grand New Mexico countryside, where riding a horse, hitching a ride in the back of a pick-up truck or finding your next job while riding an RV truck, can be your ticket to new and exciting experiences. Shot through with a true love of Western myth-making while giving it a progressive edge, Luke Gilford’s feature debut National Anthem (2023) — adapted from his own photography monograph covering the USA’s queer rodeo scene — is a marvellous, highly empathetic work that feels both quintessentially American and deeply inclusive. 

We start with Dylan (Charlie Plummer), a quiet, taciturn 21-year-old, working construction jobs in the heat. He lives with his mother Fiona (Robyn Lively), a lapsing alcoholic. His great aim is to save up enough money to buy an RV, so he can take his kid brother Cassidy (Joey DeLeon) out of a toxic household. We sense his life slowing to a steady, predictable pace. But when he gets a job working on an LGBT ranch, filled with trans, lesbian, gay and non-binary people building their own sense of utopia, he is forced to come out of his shell and figure out who he really is. 

Making this job a lot easier is the stunning Sky, played with star-making ease and grace by Eve Lindley, whom he first spots riding her beloved horse, Cash. This image of a trans woman engaging in one of the most iconic American pursuits — riding a big old horse — seems to awaken something vital in Dylan, making him realise that perhaps there is a different way to be a cowboy in the West. He thinks he’s boring. She disagrees: “Maybe you just haven’t found your people yet.”

Shooting on film in 1:66:1, aka the Golden Ratio, enables cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi to frame intense, beautiful close-ups and capture gorgeous landscape shots, using the full potential of the ratio to explore character in its relationship to the surrounding world. Allowing the colours to pop, the frame to crackle and to make smiles and glances seem all that much more meaningful, the cinematography elevates the tale considerably, giving it a special sheen. 

With such great imagery to choose from, shot at low-angles, bird-eye-view shorts, half-obscured frames, and with clear, deep focus, National Anthem’s tender love story springs naturally and effortlessly. It’s almost a shame when the film has to come back to earth and focus on perhaps predictable plot developments such as Sky’s jealous boyfriend, the push and pull of independence and dependence and what it means to build your own family. And perhaps these panoramas are a little overdone, especially as the luscious score and needle drops tip the film into saccharine territory, but these are minor notes in an otherwise excellent, touching film — one that finds the West to be more expansive and welcoming than ever. 

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Redmond is the editor-in-chief of Journey Into Cinema.