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Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Masculinity and its discontents has always been a ripe subject for dissection in film and literature. Writer-director Lynn Shelton (My Effortless Brilliance, We Go Way Back) does just that in her latest film, Humpday, an indie comedy-drama that asks “What happens if two (presumably) straight guys decided to make gay porn?” To Shelton’s considerable credit, the answer isn’t simple or straightforward, but layered with contradictions, complications, and confrontations. Working with a small crew, some doubling or tripling up, and a cast willing to expose themselves, physically and, more importantly, emotionally, to the demands of the story, Shelton has crafted a perceptive, thought-provoking film.

In his thirties, Ben (Mark Duplass), seems relatively content with his life in Seattle. He’s gainfully employed and eager to begin a family with his wife, Anna (Alycia Delmore). But his plans go awry when an old college friend, Andrew (Joshua Leonard), appears at his doorstep at two in the morning. Andrew has spent the last ten years backpacking his way around the world. Their first meeting in a decade, however, reveals more than either Ben or Andrew intended. Long-buried resentments and conflicts surface, but are just as quickly buried again. Both men see the path not taken: for Ben, the adventurous life of a world traveler; for Andrew, domestic bliss (or something that resembles domestic bliss).

The extroverted Andrew meets Monica (Lynn Shelton), a not-quite-single woman, at a coffee shop. Within hours, he’s inviting Ben to stop by a party she’s throwing. Ben agrees to stop by briefly but thanks to the liberal availability of alcohol and pot, ends up staying half the night. Stoned and drunk, Ben comes up with an idea he thinks will win the top award at the Seattle-based Humpfest, a festival dedicated to amateur porn. Ben proposes that he and Andrew make an art-porn film. In Ben’s drug- and booze-addled formulation, straight-guys-making-gay-porn will be “beyond gay". What begins as a joke turns into a dare and even a vow between the two men. Neither Ben nor Andrew seems willing to back down. Much awkwardness ensues.

Humpday turns on the “Will they or won’t they?” question (and yes, Shelton gives moviegoers an answer), as well as the long-term consequences their decision will have on their friendship and on Ben’s marriage to Anna. To Shelton’s credit, she doesn’t treat the question at the center of Humpday as fodder for humor (there is that, of course, mostly of the awkward variety), but rigorously explores every character’s perspective, giving them the inner lives and nuanced backstories perfectly suited for character-driven, indie comedy-dramas. There’s insight too into the dynamics, complexities, and tensions inherent in male friendships. In Mark Duplass (a writer-director in his own right) and Joshua Leonard found actors willing to follow her through the shifting emotional and physical boundaries of Ben and Andrew’s relationship.