It all started with Teen Vogue. In 2010, the outlet ran a piece about the must-have item for the summer, except it wasn’t for an item at all, but a person.
The piece extolled the glory of the GBF, better known as the Gay Best Friend. “He’s fun, trustworthy, and supportive, plus you don’t have to compete with him.”
When George Northy came across the article, it inspired him to write a film of his own.
“It felt like an Onion article, but it was real,” Northy told LGBTQ Nation. Drawing on other inspirations with teen movies like Mean Girls, Easy A, and especially Darren Stein’s first film Jawbreaker, he got down to business to write a queer teen movie of his own: 2013’s GBF.
The film takes place in high school, where the three most popular girls in school are gunning for the title of prom queen. They’re after something that can push them over the edge and guarantee their prom supremacy, and the latest craze is a GBF. The only problem? There’s not a single out student at their school.
Brent (Paul Iacono) is planning to be the first out kid at school and is ready to become the most popular kid in school. When his best friend Tanner (Michael J. Willett) is forcibly outed, accidentally stealing Brent’s thunder, he becomes the boy all the girls are after.
The film is both a bold satire of teen movies and the homosexual experience, while placing gay teens front and center, and celebrating them, and crucially, every dimension of them.
GBF, written by Northy and directed by Darren Stein, is an essential piece of queer cinema. It celebrates being out and proud and all the joys of gay life from a teen perspective, something that no other film dared to do back in 2013. While with each passing year we’re getting more stories about LGBTQ experiences, none have come close to the delirious joy and heightened glory of GBF.
Stein came across Northy’s script thanks to a connection with screenwriter Guinevere Turner (American Psycho) and expected some sort of horror movie. He was delighted to find GBF, a gay teen movie, instead. Likewise, Northy was ecstatic that someone who was such a strong influence on his own work would be directing his script.
“It was exciting to me because I hadn’t seen that teen movie,” Stein told LGBTQ Nation, adding “A lot of gay boys want to be part of that slow-motion walk.”
The slow-motion walk set to pop music Stein refers to has become a key trope of high school movies. It’s a trope he originated with 1999’s Jawbreaker. It’s been replicated many times since; Not Another Teen Movie, Easy A, and Mean Girls are famous examples, but it’s gone far beyond the teen movie, with movies like Bridesmaids and The House Bunny, and was even parodied in a song in Crazy-Ex Girlfriend.
The slow-motion walk in GBF, set to Ellie Goulding’s Anything Could Happen (which, according to Stein, took up a considerable amount of the film’s budget), is at the center of what makes the film so special. It’s a moment that straight people have got to enjoy time and time again, but here, it’s a gay guy at the core of it all.
Tanner walks with the three queen bees of the school, and it’s a dizzying moment that celebrates homosexuality without reservation. It’s clear, as Tanner struts down the hall, that gay life is not only not something to be ashamed of, but something to celebrate.
According to Stein, “It felt like a full-circle moment.”
Getting the film made wasn’t easy.
“We did try to send it to studios but they all passed on it,” Northy explained, leading them to finance the film independently.
Basically, the approach came was to “set a date to shoot and make it for whatever we get, and that’s what we did,” Northy said.
When the time came to shoot, they were ready to make magic, despite a shoestring budget lower than most tv episodes these days. Stein revealed that the budget was $300-450 thousand, roughly 10% of what the internet claims it to be ($3.5 million).
Despite the financial challenges, there was a real feeling of passion and love running through the set, and the obstacles made it all the more exciting.
“It was really fun, it was like summer camp…It was basically my film school, watching Darren direct my movie. Every morning Darren and I would huddle, and try to figure out how we were going to make that day”, Northy explained, and that collaborative, improvisational energy really lent to the film’s excellence.
One of the funniest scenes finds Brent and his mother, the wonderful Megan Mullally, watching Brokeback Mountain together. It’s the perfect blend of hilarious, cringe, and heartwarming that GBF does so brilliantly. The scene was an “example of the improvisational way George and I worked together,” said Stein.
Northy added, “There was a baseline and the two of them just riffed…we actually played the scene for them and Megan just narrated it. It was definitely one of the best days of filming.”
It’s rather extraordinary that GBF was made so cheaply, as it looks so expensive. Films these days seem to be competing over who can offer the most shades of grey, but GBF explodes with bright, bold colors. Every frame is full of it. That shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise for the eagle-eyed, as one of Stein’s influences is adorned on Brent’s wall – a poster for the movie Pepi, Luci, Bom, directed by Pedro Almodovar, a filmmaker who is legendary for his lavish use of color.
On the aesthetic, Stein explained, “I love when high school movies are slightly aspirational and out of reach when everyone looks a little bit too old.”
Northy’s script creates a completely new vernacular (an essential part of any great high school classic), and Stein wanted a visual aesthetic to match. The costumes are a delight as well. It borrows from all over the place, using influences from various decades to create a timeless effect.
The style is also distinctly queer. This was something very important to both the writer and director.
As Stein described it, “One of the important things is to have a queer aesthetic, so you know a queer filmmaker is making it. There’s a queer writer who wrote it. So I think that coding is important, especially for a young audience…it’s like a gift. It’s a wink to the queer kids saying I see you. This movie is for you.”
That’s an idea that gets exactly what makes GBF such a wonder. Queer characters are so often shoehorned into hetero narratives, act just as straight people do, and just happen to be gay. They’re often window dressing – they’re present, but they have no real motivations or goals. GBF bucks this trend with joy, bringing us gay characters that are nuanced and thoughtful, and take great pleasure in breaking down stereotypes.
This was something important to Northy, who explains: “Stereotypes always just melt away when you make them real people. Letting gay kids be kinda queeny is totally fine, but also sexy, and smart. The girls vying for the GBF also have unexpected depth and nuance.”
It’s a film that was ahead of its time when it came out and remains one today. It doesn’t just revel in the glory of gays, but gays unafraid to explore their feminine side.
“It was important for us to cast gay actors as Tanner and Brent. Paul Iacono camped it up but he kept it grounded too. He never got to play gay before,” Stein explained.
It explores the commodification of homosexuality long before corporations raced to add rainbow flags to their logos for Pride month. Northy joked that “the sequel would be instead of three girls, it’s three corporations vying for the gays,” an idea that hopefully comes to fruition one day.
Stein remarked that when it came to pulling everything together to make GBF, “it’s a miracle we were able to pull it off.”
I’m so grateful that they did, as GBF was the film I saw where gay teens could be so much more than just their sexual orientation. The film showcases gay teens being funny, silly, sexy, stupid, and everything in between. The film afforded gay teens an opportunity to do in movies what their hetero counterparts had been doing for decades.
It’s vivid, chic, hilarious – it’s cutting satire that’s incisive and uplifting. It was a miracle back in 2013, and it still feels like one today.