Tobias Segal and Michael Urie in “Petunia.” | WOLFE RELEASING
Out director Ash Christian’s dark, but at times sweet, comedy “Petunia” chronicles the romantic and sexual dysfunction that plagues members of the title clan. Parents Felicia (Christine Lahti) and Percy (David Rasche) are discussing divorce. Their son Michael (Eddie Kay Thomas) marries Vivian (Thora Birch), who we soon learn is pregnant, possibly by Michael’s sex-addicted brother, Adrian (Jimmy Heck).
And then there is Charlie (Tobias Segal), the Petunia family’s gay son who is practicing abstinence — until he meets George (Michael Urie) and falls in love. The guys’ romance is charming, but it too hits a major snag.
A family’s dysfunction at love dominates Ash Christian’s black comedy
Christian’s film may feature unhappy characters, but viewers will become engaged in their heartfelt stories. The director, who was also co-writer of the screenplay with Theresa Bennett, spoke with Gay City News about his eccentric characters’ struggles to find love and happiness amidst the challenges of sex, family, and their own tendencies toward over-sharing.
GARY M. KRAMER: What was your inspiration for creating the Petunia family? How much of it was based on your family members or experiences?
ASH CHRISTIAN: The film started with Charlie and George. We created the family based on quirky characters from my own family and some out of mid-air based on people I know in New York. I am an only child, raised by a single mom in Texas. I have a crazy aunt who inspired the Felicia quirks —facial work and psychoanalyzing everything her children do and putting way more emphasis on things than is there. But I had to convert everything from a crazy Southern family to a crazy New York one because I moved here eight years ago.
GMK: The characters all seem to be in denial — about what they want, who they love, and even how they feel. Why did that become the basis for comedy?
AC: I think real life is funny, and people being neurotic and self-absorbed makes me laugh. These qualities actually make you love the Petunias, because they are so far gone.
GMK: There are several broad comic bits about Felicia considering plastic surgery while her children do drastic things like jump out windows. Why did have your characters behave in such outlandish ways?
AC: I think it’s all funny. I find people fixing their faces to be sort of ridiculous. But I get why people do it. It’s all to get attention. With celebrities like Amanda Bynes, people are doing crazy things. Felicia is in everyone’s lives a little bit, but not enough to care, so the family acts out to make her pay attention.
Out gay filmmaker Ash Christian directed and co-wrote “Petunia.” | WOLFE RELEASING
GMK: There is also some over-sharing between characters in the film. What is the most inappropriate thing that you’ve experienced?
AC: Oh God! [Laughs]. I’m trying to think… I guess it all goes back to… I’m trying not to over-share myself… My first sexual experience when I was in a boys choir. I still laugh to this day at the awkwardness of my life experience and sexuality.
GMK: Let’s talk about the film’s humor. Usually, jokes are told quickly, but in “Petunia,” you stretch them out and let them build. Why do you take that approach to comedy?
AC: I love the awkward long beats. I am inspired by Todd Solondz, who plays things out in films like “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Happiness,” which are filled with awkward family moments. That was the comedic tone I was going for. I like real people living real lives and letting things play out as they make giant mistakes. I do character outlines for everyone, and then we have the movie because I’ve fallen in love with them and want to see them through.
GMK: Much of “Petunia” suggests you have contempt for marriage. Is that true?
AC: Personally, I’m entirely single and have been forever. Someday I hope to get married, but in my world marriages never succeed, they only fail. Oddly enough, I’m a romantic with ideals. I’m not against marriage. I think the characters of Percy and Felicia are right for each other and there is love there, but they have had a rough few years.
GMK: You depict the queer couple as the sweetest and most normal people in the film, but then throw in a curveball. Why?
AC: I’ve never seen it done in a gay movie — though I don’t consider this a gay film, and it may have been done and I’ve not seen it. But I didn’t want to make George like every other gay character out there. It’s fun to see that.
GMK: Sex is often a solution to the Petunia family’s happiness. Do you think sex heals?
AC: I’d like to think so! [Laughs.] That’s where we went with it. It’s a sexual film about family, and though that’s an odd place to go, sex saves Charlie and a marriage and we wanted to play on that.
GMK: There is also talk of karma in the film — many of the characters get what, or who, they deserve. Do you believe in karma?
AC: Absolutely! I’m a huge believer in trying to do the right thing so it comes back. Though that’s selfish in a way.
PETUNIA | Directed by Ash Christian | Wolfe Releasing | Opens Jun. 28 | Cinema Village | 22 E. 12th St. | cinemavillage.com