“Chaz was the only one who made me feel normal.”
White Frog tries to be too many things. On the one hand, it’s a coming-of-age movie. On the other, it’s a drama about grief. It also wants to be a movie about coming out, dealing with Asperger’s Syndrome, and religion’s role in each of the aforementioned elements. Yet it’s simply too short, without the time necessary to develop any of these themes to their fullest potential, which is a shame because there’s a goldmine here.
A movie revolving around how older brother Chaz (Harry Shum Jr, Glee) balances his burgeoning sexuality with his need to protect younger brother Nick (Booboo Stewart, Twilight), who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, is one I would watch repeatedly. Sadly, White Frog fails to live up to the promise of its premise.
I could easily forgive White Frog failing to live up to the promise inherent, if not for one glaring issue. We learn very quickly while Chaz and Nick have a very special relationship most of his Chaz’s friends are words which rhyme with ‘sticks’. The movie simply does not demonstrate enough character development to ever convince me my initial impression is wrong. This is a crucial misstep, as the movie’s central conceit is how Nick and his parents deal with Chaz’s sudden death, specifically through Chaz’s friends who apparently knew him better than anyone.
This is Nick’s story and we also learn early on his parents are no help and worse, seem to have absolutely no understanding of (either) son at all. White Frog dares to go to a place few other movies would — a parent questioning if the wrong son died — yet the move merely underscores how too little understanding of who Nick is abounds in this movie. While I genuinely enjoy watching BD Wong (Law and Order: Special Victims Unit) and Joan Chen (Twin Peaks) here, they’re underutilized as Nick and Chaz’s parents, as well as being stuck in underwritten parts.
White Frog promises we will learn about Chaz through his friends’ interactions with Nick, but the movie is almost halfway over before that even begins to pay off and it’s a weak payoff, to say the least. Chaz’s friends are a few high school seniors who gather every Friday night to play high-stakes poker. Nick joins the games and we are treated to a series of scenes with so much lost potential I could weep. Instead of sharing anecdotes or experiences which shed light on the “secret life” Chaz was living we never fully understand why Chaz is friends with most of them, especially Randy (Gregg Sulkin, As the Bell Rings).
Randy actually blames Nick for Chaz’s death at one point, then goes on to say Nick never loved Chaz, that Chaz loved Randy. So the “secret life” is Chaz was gay, with Randy as his (not-at-all-believable) boyfriend. Randy goes off on Nick, who’s been raised in a strictly religious household, telling him it’s Nick’s family’s fault Chaz didn’t tell them he was gay and generally tries his best to make Nick feel as though the brother he loved never loved him.
And yet none of Chaz’s other friends knew about him and Randy, either. I suppose I should be glad Randy remains true to character and takes his anger out on a helpless person, yet Randy is such a tool it’s incredibly hard to believe what happens after the “big reveal.” One of my biggest eye rolls comes when I realize we’re not going to address something I was waiting for through the entire film.
Randy comes to pick Chaz up the day he dies and says something tactless and mean-spirited to Nick in front of Chaz. Chaz abandons the ride in favor of making sure Nick is okay and the two share a fun scene of bonding. So really if Randy wasn’t such a huge jackhole, Chaz would have gotten in the car with him and (presumably) lived. This is never addressed and is an enormous missed opportunity. If Randy could simply accept he could have been to blame as well it would give the character a much-needed touch of humanity. I never believe Chaz loved Randy, because the one thing White Frog does right is convince me Chaz loves his baby brother.
More than that, Chaz accepts Nick, and, in fact, is his guiding light. Chaz is the one who works with Nick on his “b-mod,” his behavioral moderation techniques which help Nick function. “We’re a team,” he tells Nick, and it’s clearly demonstrated Chaz doesn’t see Nick as a burden. If Randy never understands or appreciates the most defining characteristic we learn about Chaz how can I believe their relationship was special? It’s simple — I don’t. I never invest in the relationship between Randy and Chaz and most of the Randy/Nick scenes make me cringe.
White Frog touches on too many issues without successfully delving into or resolving any of them to the viewer’s satisfaction. What do you do when your “perfect” son dies? How do you deal with the death of the only person who ever loved you exactly as you are? When you find out someone you loved lied to you how do you confront them if they’re dead? These are only the top three. There’s plenty more ranging from college entrance fears to coming out to accepting the profits of illegal gambling and others.
The movie is too ambitious for its short runtime. Instead of slowing down and really getting the nuances of any of these issues, the film’s ending feels rushed, and there are story elements pulled out of nowhere. These include a cameo by Kelly Hu (Warehouse 13). These are inserted for the sole purpose of manufacturing a happy conclusion, which fails to feel fully germane to the rest of the movie.
Speaking of feeling cohesive, there’s a divide in the acting levels demonstrated here as well. I really enjoy Shum and Stewart and I believe Doug’s performance (Tyler Posey, Teen Wolf), yet they’re surrounded by other people who are so obviously acting, it’s distracting.
Another distracting element is the sound. Even though it’s a Dolby 5.1 track the dialogue occasionally seems to be occupying a separate space, lacking the ambient soundscape necessary to fully flesh out the scenes. Some of the Foley work is jarring at times as well, and I cannot tell if it’s meant to be underscoring the nature of grief or simply not mixed correctly. The video transfer fares better with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio which holds a steady if slightly under-saturated palette. Outdoor sunny scenes come close to white levels which are too hot and nighttime shots are lit well enough to avoid sinking into the deepest blacks. The biggest issues with the video are the unnecessary camera moves which undercut the emotions of their scenes. Instead of keeping the camera stable to emphasize the immobilizing power of grief, there’s a handheld aspect, which merely betrays another person’s presence in the scene.
The lone special feature is a short behind-the-scenes featurette.
White Frog is a movie to watch for Stewart’s performance, especially his scenes with Shum Jr. The rest of the film is too clunky to recommend.