One of the more frustrating facets of the Berlinale is that its bloated, hard-to-navigate programme invariably ensures that a handful of highlights end up receiving far less attention in the moment than they deserve. As an attendee, my sense of Hard Paint was that it was this year’s breakout queer hit, but I saw its world premiere covered by precisely one major English-language outlet. Happily, as a consequence of it having won the Teddy Award for best LGBTQ feature at the festival, commentators are now catching up with one of the festival’s standout narrative films.
Directors Marcio Reolon, Filipe Matzembacher
Pedro Shico Menegat
Leo Bruno Fernandes
Luiza Guega Peixoto
Grandma Sandra Dani
Beto Frederico Vasques
Original Brazilian title Tinta Bruta
Written and directed by precocious young Brazilian duo Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon, last at the Berlinale in 2015 with their promising but patience-testing debut feature Seashore, Hard Paint immerses the viewer in the turbulent double life of Pedro (Shico Menegat). By day he’s an awkward, disconcertingly withdrawn young gay man; by night, a sexually provocative webcam performer whose trademark act involves him slathering himself in fluorescent body paint, hence the online handle NeonBoy. Pedro’s position in life is precarious – his porn career is clearly a consequence of a lack of compelling job prospects in his stifling home city of Porto Alegre, and we learn that he’s been bullied to breaking point in the past, resulting in legal complications that cast a dark shadow over his future.
But the filmmakers are careful to steer away from the bleak fatalism that characterises so many dark-hued coming-of-age tales. Pedro’s online exploits may be a far-from-ideal way for a vulnerable youth to come to terms with his sexuality, but in the apparent absence of a supportive queer community for him to tap into, they at least allow him to make connections with other gay men from the relative safety of his home, under the protective (if not entirely approving) gaze of his older sister Luiza (Guega Peixoto). And in a wryly amusing turn of events, Pedro’s fierce desire to preserve his online brand ultimately sends him down a circuitous path towards romance with rival performer Leo (Bruno Fernandes).
Tonally, Matzembacher and Reolon perform a deft balancing act, crafting a character study that is empathetic and emotionally engaging, but unflinching and unsentimental. Hard Paint is also unapologetically erotic, often exposing the essence of its characters through arresting explicit imagery. Pedro and Leo’s first sexual encounter is a compellingly ambiguous dance in which the pair, united primarily by a shared desire for financial gain, attempt to assert their authority over one another despite a palpable mutual desire. On a simple sensory level, all the paint-smearing and grainy webcam footage prove compellingly hypnotic.
A loose, freewheeling structure perhaps renders this a tougher sell than recent queer crossover successes such as God’s Own Country and A Fantastic Woman, but the filmmakers keep things entertainingly unpredictable, with a late-in-the-game sojourn into hard-boiled thriller territory proving particularly effective. And while its abruptly optimistic ending veers perilously close to the realm of arthouse cliche, it’s handled with such flair that it feels churlish to deny Pedro a moment of euphoria at the end of his arduous journey.