What to watch: Riley

We speak with filmmaker Benjamin Howard about the coming-of-age story inspired by his own experiences.

What to watch: Riley

Inspired by his own experiences, filmmaker Benjamin Howard gives us the story of Riley – a film that will premier at the 2024 BFI Flare festival.

Dakota Riley is a star-player on a high school football team whose hidden sexuality threatens to unravel his life. His girlfriend, family and teammates all suspect something is coming undone. Things are complicated by a series of secret sexual encounters online and with a classmate. When his identity is thrown into disarray, he is forced to confront the consequences of denying himself, and come to terms with who he really is.

Ahead of the film’s premiere, I caught up with Benjamin Howard for a behind-the-scenes look at Riley.

Riley is the feature-length version of the autobiographical story that you started exploring with your short film Rendezvous. There’s inevitably a bit of therapy in filmmaking – has your perspective on your coming-of-age experience evolved at all the more that you’ve examined it from different perspectives?

Absolutely. Writing the screenplay was a complex mixture of deep catharsis and a buzzing apprehension. I had the privilege of writing a character that I knew – knowing what I know now – was eventually going to be okay, even after the film cuts to black.

But the writing phase also forced me to put the character in these really awkward positions, as I re-examined these defining moments from my past. And being so autobiographical, you find yourself writing in a silo, unsure if an audience will resonate or not.

But I ultimately just wanted to write something truthful, and so in that way, the writing portion was indeed very therapeutic. But it wasn’t until the film started screening for audiences that my perspective shifted more significantly.

The most affirming shift being the number of people – gay or straight, men, women and our friends outside the binary, of all ages – have expressed some level of resonation with the character. It’s really been a surprise to me how many folks, even outside the queer spectrum, see themselves in Dakota. And I think that’s offered me a really refreshing reassurance that, indeed, I am not, and was not, alone in my experiences.

There’s a scene where Riley’s hook-up is trying to give him some gay-elder words of wisdom – does that reflect the advice that you wish that you could give your younger self?

Completely. As a teenager, I was so rigid with what I was and wasn’t allowed to be. I was told it was wrong, to feel the things I felt. There was nobody in my life to reassure me that I’m just fine the way I am. Even if there was, I would have been too scared to approach them. And so that scene acts as a moment I wish I’d gotten. It’s Riley’s “lesson”, from a wiser gay man, who “gets it”.

Narratively, the scene was tricky to craft. I knew it’d have to hit a certain way. But in order to teach Riley this lesson, it had to feel grounded – it couldn’t be preachy.

I struggled with the words for the hookup character’s monologue for a long time. And one night, while writing, I asked my boyfriend to give it a crack. He sat down, typed out a few sentences, and showed me. What he came up with unlocked the scene for me in a really profound way, and helped in articulating what I knew was in me, but couldn’t put to words.

When we shot, I relayed some of these “preachy” concerns with my actors, and what they managed to do with the words were just incredible. It’s probably my favourite scene in the film.

It’s obviously a very personal project, and when you’re the writer and director you’ve got a lot of control over how you tell the story of Riley. Is there a danger that you’ve been a bit too forgiving of Riley?

I fully acknowledge the self-sabotaging tendencies of the character. While yes, we leave Riley on a hopeful note by the film’s conclusion, it doesn’t mean his journey getting there was a walk in the park. Riley made some questionable decisions in trying to figure himself out. He betrays a girlfriend. He acts out physically. He manipulates a gay classmate, all in the name of keeping his reputation intact. He’s kind of a piece of shit! But this was intentional.

I think, in some twisted way, audiences are quicker to forgive him because, deep down, we all know we can be pieces of shit. Especially in high school. I certainly was. I was confused, I was acting out, all in an effort to figure out who I was.

The character is a boiling pot, and his own preconceptions are the lid keeping a tight seal. Well, eventually, that water boils over, and that high pressure has to escape – what you’re left with is a complex young guy, navigating uncharted territory, simply trying to learn to love himself.

I don’t think I was concerned at being too close to the material. If anything, I think it aided in telling something truthful and authentic. But I surrounded myself with a team, especially the film’s cinematographer, Michael Thomas, that kept me honest. Michael and I knew what our intentions were with the film, and those intentions were to simply tell the truth. We knew if we could do that, if we could craft something that rang true to our own personal experiences, it would ring true for other people’s. And in turn, that would offer hope to folks struggling with their own demons.

While on one level this story is a relatively straightforward coming-of-age/journey of self-acceptance story, it also highlights how families/schools/communities fundamentally fail queer people. By framing the story of Riley within the “coming out” tropes – which is your lived experience – are we somehow reinforcing the status quo or the othering of queer people?

Maybe there will come a time when “coming out” films are a relic of cinema’s past. But I don’t think we’re there just yet, and the cold reality for thousands of queer kids, athletes in particular, is that they can’t come out, or won’t come out, for one reason or another.

For Riley, specifically – and this is something I was very mindful of when making the film – I knew his biggest hurdle in coming out wasn’t going to be football, or even his parents, or his friends. It was going to be himself. The voice in his head was the demon he had to overcome, which is a very intense, internal struggle.

I know that voice exists in so many young gay kids across the country, because it existed for me. So, my hope is that seeing a film like this might give them reassurance to aid in their journey of self-discovery. And I don’t think that reinforces the othering of these kids – I think it gives them hope that they aren’t alone.

Is football something that you’re still passionate about?

As long as the Los Angeles Chargers are winning, yes.

The European premier screening of Riley will be at the 2024 BFI Flare festival

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