At the beginning of National Anthem, writer-director Luke Gilford’s exquisite-looking and subversive debut feature, 21-year-old Dylan (Charlie Plummer) lives a particularly burdensome and monotonous life. Within his small, rural, isolated New Mexico community he supports his family by shoveling gravel at temporary construction gigs and returns to his one-bedroom home to feed and take care of Cassidy (Joey DeLeon), his younger brother. Most nights his alcoholic hairdresser mother goes out late and returns home with drunken flings, forcing her two sons to sleep on the couch. It’s a difficult, lonely existence, and throughout his primary caretaking Dylan sees no opportunity to escape. 

But that pendulum shifts when Pepe (Rene Rosado) pulls up in a pickup truck and offers a group of day laborers some extra work. Lacking many options, Dylan obliges and soon discovers an alternative lifestyle just 30 minutes down the road. Initially tasked with bailing hay at House of Splendor, a homestead built by a community of queer rodeo performers and ranchers, Dylan’s diligent, unassuming presence quickly attracts its residents. But he can’t keep his eyes off Sky (Eve Lindley), a beautiful barrel racer and free spirit who seduces and entrances amidst the southwest’s melting backdrops. 

Suddenly Dylan’s world expands, the ranch providing him an outlet and escape hatch from his cloistered and domesticated routine. Over the next few weeks Dylan slowly detaches from his usual responsibilities, forcing his mother to parent Cassidy as he blends his daily work and social life together, opening himself to a marginalized family of queer cowboys and drag queens eager to include him in their spontaneous trips to Wal-Mart or their weekends at rodeos. In time, his new group of friends––and his deep attraction to Sky––forces a sexual introspection, challenging his uninterrogated masculinity and the previously established relationships on the compound. 

National Anthem is an offshoot of Gilford’s 2020 photographic series, which showcased the beauty of America’s Queer Rodeo by foregrounding softly lit and often-hidden subjects against expansive New Mexican vistas. At a time of political polarization and in a space typically reserved for a more traditional, patriarchal idea of a cowboy, Gilford’s portraits paint a subversive, tender depiction of bull riders and lasso twirlers co-opting an environment that has always felt exclusionary. As a remedy, their events cater to families, and while they maintain the same rigor and skill of standard rodeos, they promote a belonging and openness that gives someone like Dylan a chance to embrace all of his personhood. 

In his collaboration with cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi, Gilford shows off his photographer background––his warm and sensitive close-ups, imposing landscapes, and precise blocking exude the competing feelings of destitution and intimacy amidst the barren southwest. It’s a tribute to several years of Gilford ingratiating himself with queer individuals and groups, exemplified in the dynamics he captures when a lonely construction worker engages with this new community. In some superb scenes featuring Mason Alexander Park, Dylan gets dolled up in drag, performs in bars, and explores his sexuality before returning home, where he must square the excitement and possibility of his untapped identity with the weight of his own family’s well-being. 

There’s not always enough tension between those two worlds to feel the internal wrestling and weight of Dylan’s journey; the closest accumulation of drama takes place in the loosely defined but long-standing relationship between Pepe and Sky, and the fuzzy love triangle that develops when Dylan begins to interject and stay over at House of Splendor. Plummer is used to wearing leather and hide––his breakout in 2018’s Lean on Pete introduced him as a soft, sensitive farm hand, and Dylan seems a natural, laconic extension. But it’s Lindley that takes control of the screen, tasked with portraying an object of lust, affectionate lover, and nurturing mentor, sometimes all at once. Her chemistry with Plummer prevents the ambiguities in their relationship from becoming melodramatic sticking points, and it keeps the warm breeze of Gilford’s movie from gusting into histrionics. 

It’s exciting to see a debut so self-assured and comfortable in its own sun-baked skin. Gilford has effectively shined a spotlight on a community used to the shadows, resisting the opportunity to give this coming-of-age story a climatic or tragic splash. That would seem out-of-character for a movie deeply attuned to its quiet, stoic protagonist and the selfless, compassionate personality he’s fostered his entire life. “I’m his person,” Dylan says when asked about helping his brother. But Sky eventually flips it around on him. “You haven’t met your people yet,” she says. National Anthem offers a scenario in which reality and possibility can coexist. 

National Anthem premiered at SXSW 2023.

Grade: B+

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