Review: Hunter Lee Hughes’ Guys Reading Poems Has Superb Visual Style

Luke Judy and Alexander Dreymon in Guys Reading Poems

Luke Judy and Alexander Dreymon in Guys Reading Poems

For a film that relies so heavily on the spoken word, what Guys Reading Poems most resembles is a silent film in its use of visual storytelling without dialogue. Throughout the hundred or so minute film, the characters speak only a handful of words to one another, but director Hunter Lee Hughes nonetheless communicates the story deftly, with the poems interspersed throughout functioning much like songs in a musical film, occasionally moving the story along but more often establishing mood and tone.

Guys Reading Poems is quite consciously an art film, and an experimental one at that. Shot in black and white with limited dialogue, the characters are never given names, referred to only by their respective roles in the story, like Mother and Father. This is one of the many ways in which it calls back to silent film tropes, evoking the simplicity of something like F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise.

The film stars Patricia Velasquez, best known for The Mummy, as the Mother, and Alexander Dreymon of “The Last Kingdom” and “American Horror Story: Coven” as the Father. When the Father has to leave Los Angeles for a project in New York, he leaves their child with the Mother, who finds herself unable to cope with the burdens of parenting. Luke Judy plays their son, and he earns favorable comparisons to Jacob Tremblay for Room in a role that has similar parallels to the film that won Brie Larson an Oscar.

The structure of the film seems meant to keep the audience off balance, with a non-linear progression and the inclusion of poetry as the film’s connective tissue. Guys Reading Poems has the feel of a director and writer who is trying out new things, and thus requires some patience from the audience. What seems random at first will eventually be explained; the elements are there but require time to cohere.

At its beginning, audiences may not expect Guys Reading Poems to have a story at all, but it eventually does fall into place. Until then, the film at least has a superb visual style that conveys a great deal without the characters speaking much at all. While the film may be low-budget, there is never a moment in which the film looks less than gorgeous, thanks to the black-and-white cinematography.

As the Mother, Velasquez is able to convey a great deal of the character’s sadness with essentially no dialogue. Based on what happens in Guys Reading Poems, the character must necessarily be unknowable, but Velasquez, like in Liz in September, can be quite fine when using her beauty to portray melancholy. Dreymon has less to do, but like Velasquez, Hughes’ camera adores him, and Judy is precocious without being cloying.

One of the ironies of Guys Reading Poems is that the poetry often seems like a bit of an afterthought, a seasoning to the meal instead of its main course. It is hardly unnecessary, and it is a pleasure to hear performers act out poems that people primarily know from the page, but the film’s visual style is its real strength. As with any film as experimental as this one, not everything in the film is entirely successful, but Hunter Lee Hughes takes tremendous risks and often reaps tremendous rewards from them.

Guys Reading Poems
Fatelink Productions
Now in select theaters

4 Stars

Films are rated on a scale of 5 stars (must-see), 4 stars (exceptional), 3 stars (solid), 2 stars (average) and 1 star (unworthy).

Jeremy Ross is a Staff Reporter for Living Out Loud - LA, covering entertainment.

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