What makes “Smiley” as pleasurable as its name suggests is its refusal to represent the trauma of homophobia. Its world includes genuine sadness, but not the kind imposed from the outside. It instead puts a queer spin on the universal inheritance of mixed feelings, false starts, near losses and hard truths that is the basis of comedy everywhere — in the process effecting a reconciliation between gayness and the larger human condition. It doesn’t hurt that Cuevas is a perfectly engineered composite of hunk and soul.
Whether he is also gay I don’t know, and don’t really care. Though completely incorrect politically, it might in fact be advantageous from an emotional-reparations perspective if he were not. When I watch “Smiley” (twice through so far) — or for that matter “All of Us Strangers” (I’m not sure I could survive a second screening) — I experience a weird and useful superimposition. The characters played by Cuevas and, in the film, Paul Mescal, are not only the eager objects of queer love but, as shadow straight men, an overwhelming source of it, reversing the violence of their kind in the past.
In case you hadn’t heard, Mescal, so beefy and careworn, so masculine and yet so entirely without machismo, is my boyfriend. Well, fine, no, but he’s my ideal of the New Wide-Spectrum Sex Icon: my Schrödinger’s Catch, at once completely gay and, admittedly, not. What makes his Harry in “All of Us Strangers” so transporting — even if the movie really belongs to Andrew Scott’s Adam — is his obvious joy, much more than mere willingness, in embodying the role of both lover and beloved. Whatever men like Cuevas and Mescal do offscreen, onscreen they embrace full queerness enough to make it real and doubly desirable for me.
That queerness could ever be embraceable, could ever be safe, could ever be joyful even to the straight world, is the idea, unavailable to its characters, that makes “All of Us Strangers” a great and deeply familiar gay tragedy. Adam, damaged by childhood bullying, by parents who did not protect him and by the grown-up terrors of a generation reeling from AIDS, cannot see his way into the newer, better, if still disappointing world Harry takes for granted. That their love is thus doomed elevates the movie to the Rachmaninoff heights of great ’40s weepies like “Brief Encounter.”
Yet “All of Us Strangers” goes even further, as we must, too. Trekking to the foothills of the supernatural, the director and screenwriter Andrew Haigh has Adam revisit his long-dead parents, who still live in his childhood home, frozen in time. The great thing that happens there, even if it is not enough, is that they apologize — and he forgives.
Just so, the movie and the TV shows I’ve been seeing, whatever good they may do for their intended audiences as information, cheerleading and entertainment, do something profound for the rest of us. They bring about an otherwise impossible reconciliation with our past, and in so doing connect us to our future. My solidarity, after all, must be with the hopeful Charlies of this world, not just the tragic Adams.