Warning: The following article discusses a bit of dialogue from the end of ParaNorman and contains spoilers.
What writer/co-director Chris Butler has done at the end of ParaNorman should go down as one of the most beautifully subversive moments in the history of mainstream American film.
You know the moment: Norman’s cheerleader sister Courtney (voiced by Anna Kendrick), having spent half the film cooing over Neil’s jock brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), wraps up the evening by asking the football hero for a date. Nothing fancy, just a movie. Mitch, aloof as ever, misreads the invite and reveals that his boyfriend loves “chick flicks.” Cue rimshot.
It’s a tired joke, a zinger that was already creaky when it was recycled earlier this summer, when it served as a punchline in the music video for Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.” But here’s the thing: it’s a joke that appears in a heavily marketed family film. Kids across the country are dragging their parents to see a strange animated horror-adventure yarn, and they’re winding up watching the first openly gay character in a kiddie flick.
OK, so ParaNorman is too good to be reduced to merely “a kiddie flick.” Its appeal is wide; anyone of any age with a hunger for knockout visuals and terrific storytelling will find much to love here. Butler and co-director Sam Fell keep the subversion going elsewhere, twisting the story into places we don’t expect, while crafting a story that’s about kids but not just for kids. But still, my point: a wide release from a major distributor, aimed at a family audience, with a gay character.
The throwaway nature of the joke is key, not because the filmmakers are trying to slide something past us, but because the quick punchline is played with such flippancy it renders the character’s sexual orientation otherwise irrelevant. In the world of ParaNorman, Mitch is gay and everyone’s fine with it. This ties in with the movie’s lessons about bullying and fear of those who are different, but it does so subtly, quietly. Maybe it’ll plant a seed in the minds of some younger viewers, who might begin pondering, hey, it’s OK for Norman and Neil to be different, and then that train of thought might float over to hey, Neil’s brother is different, too, and that’s also OK.
This alone is a very, very cool thing. But here’s even something cooler: the nature of the joke suggests Mitch is out. He’s completely casual about talking in public about his boyfriend. How’s that for radical, suggesting the school’s star quarterback and probably the most popular kid in town is openly gay. That’s a hell of a role model to toss to teens lurking in the closet, and could very well help lead to a generation which has no use for the closet.
I’d like to think we’re on our way to that generation. Some of their parents might object (as this depressing IMDB message board suggests), but at the screening I attended, not one kid seemed to mind. After ninety minutes of watching a study in intolerance and fear, that’s the perfect way to react.