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Between the projectile human vomit, steaming dog feces and explosive python diarrhea, it’s difficult to see at first how smart and sweet and soulful a film is Gentlemen Broncos.

The third feature from Jared and Jerusha Hess, the director and cowriters respectively of the divisive Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre, Gentlemen Broncos was taken for a rough ride by critics, and it was bucked from theaters before a wide release. One of the tenets of criticism is to judge a work for what it is, not for what it is not; the story Gentlemen Broncos tells could have followed several paths, many already well tread, and the Hesses caught hell for venturing off-trail, for exploring themes its premise does not overtly suggest.

The opening credits repurpose vintage science-fiction illustrations, many by Kelly Freas, the so-called 'dean of science-fiction artists.'
The opening credits repurpose vintage science-fiction illustrations, many by Kelly Freas, the so-called “dean of science-fiction artists.”

My better half, who counts among his favorite movies Ernest Scared Stupid and the Chuck Norris vehicle The Octagon (niin-jaa), recently forced me to watch Gentlemen Broncos, assuring hilarity and great characters and multiple layers. You can understand my skepticism.

I found it agreeably, if aggressively, adolescent, but aside from the comic genius of Jemaine Clement (seen recently in What We Do in the Shadows) as a grandiloquent, creatively blocked science-fiction author, little about Gentlemen Broncos’ own ingenuity registered until I watched it a second time. Then I saw the light, and it was accompanied not by an angelic choir, but by Black Sabbath’s Paranoid.

Benjamin: a hormonal powderkeg.
Benjamin: a hormonal powderkeg.

The film’s hero is Benjamin (Michael Angarano, endearingly forlorn), a socially awkward, home-schooled teen, who at the beginning is packed off to a writing camp by his oblivious but loving mother (the priceless Jennifer Coolidge). A prolific author of exactly the type of puerile science-fiction one would expect a withdrawn, sexually repressed teenage boy to write, Benjamin brings to camp his magnum opus, which bears the delightful title Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years and spins a futuristic yarn about a Christ-like paragon of virtue modeled after Benjamin’s deceased father and personified in his imagination by a long-haired, bearded Sam Rockwell.

Bronco atop a surveillance doe the gospel according to Benjamin.
Bronco atop a surveillance doe in the gospel according to Benjamin.

Benjamin enters his book in the camp’s writing contest, a big step for someone who normally doesn’t let others read his stories; “I let my mom read a few,” he explains to fellow camper Tabatha (Halley Feiffer), “but they just made her cry.” Yeast Lords is subsequently seized by the camp’s keynote speaker and Benjamin’s idol, Ronald Chevalier (Clement), once a commercially viable author of schlock sci-fi who is desperate for a success.

A preening Bronco in Chevalier's account.
A preening Bronco in Chevalier’s account.

As Chevalier reworks the book to pass off as his own under the title Brutus and Balzaak, the naïve Benjamin sells the Yeast Lords film rights for a post-dated $500 check to Tabatha’s friend Lonnie (Hector Jiminez), a lecherous, wannabe filmmaker who runs a low-rent production company that seems to produce nothing but trailers for imagined movies. Here, the narrative reveals itself as the gospel of Benjamin’s father and diverges into three separate accounts, with each presented as envisioned by its teller in three clever films within the film. The titular Bronco of Benjamin’s tale is noble and virile and wise; Chevalier turns him into a flamboyant, effeminate dandy; and Lonnie casts Dusty (Mike White), a python-toting church acquaintance of Benjamin’s mother whose mumbled line readings Lonnie dubs over with a masculine, Irish brogue.

Bronco in Lonnie's low-budget film version.
Bronco in Lonnie’s low-budget film version.

Frustrated by Lonnie’s interpretation of Yeast Lords, Benjamin’s misery is compounded when he chances upon Brutus and Balzaak in a book store and recognizes the story as his own. Benjamin is ultimately pushed into manhood when his chaste mother, a designer of “modest nightgowns,” is preyed upon by an unscrupulous retail kingpin. After defending his mother’s honor, Benjamin decides to defend his father’s, and he sets out to confront Chevalier at a book-signing. Cue Paranoid, precisely the type of song a teenage boy would want blaring on the soundtrack of a fantasy ass-kicking.

'We can add -onious, -ainous or -anous to just about anything and it becomes magical.'
“We can add -onious, -ainous or -anous to just about anything and it becomes magical.”

At the writing camp, Chevalier presents a pretentious lecture on “the power of the suffix.” He pontificates that a simple suffix “can turn a humdrum, forgettable name like Nebuchadnezzar into something magical, like this — Nebucharonious. And it’s that easy.” A suffix is used to alter a word’s meaning, usually to a comparative form (similar to the subsequent tellings of Benjamin’s Bronco gospel); suffix also means to append, and the critical record on Gentlemen Broncos could certainly use some suffixing.

The movie does have its acolytes, and a few film writers in recent years have championed it as a misunderstood gem deserving of another look. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody believes it is “one of the most original movies about religion ever made.” New Statesman’s Ryan Gilbey pins blame in part on the unfortunate handling of the film’s release and calls the movie an “overlooked classic.” NPR’s David Edelstein offers an interesting take on the film’s “surreally psychosexual” subtext.

Gentlemen Broncos’ ride to respectability may be long and, as Tabatha says in an effort to comfort Benjamin amid his own travails, require enduring “a lot of crap. But some day your junk will be seen by all, and it will be awesome.”