There’s a way to make Chrissy Judy sound very niche, and a way to make it sound universal. One of the wonders of Chrissy Judy, the beautiful debut feature from Todd Flaherty, is that it’s both.
Here’s the pitch that makes the film sound universal: Chrissy Judy follows a pair of struggling New York entertainers who dream of making it big. They have intense chemistry, but keep things (mostly) platonic. Then one runs off to a stable, good man in Philadelphia — leaving the other to pine, plot and wonder what might have been.
Now here’s the pitch that makes Judy Chrissy sound niche: The movie was shot for under $20,000, in black and white. It pays homage to the work of the young Woody Allen, before he was besmirched by scandal. The two entertainers are drag performers. Almost all the characters are gay men.
“I always say two opposite things can be true at the same time,” says Flaherty.
And here’s the truth of Chrissy Judy: It is as specific as it is relatable, no matter who you are. It has not interest in artificial exposition. You just hang out with the characters until you start to care about them.
As elegantly shot, written, directed and acted as the film is, it has a high tolerance — even a thirst — for the messiness of life. You can love Manhattan and be horrified by Woody Allen. You can love your best friend but go live with someone else. You can be generous and charming, or tacky and cruel.
Flaherty became a filmmaker because he grew tired, as a gay man, of auditioning to understudy for straight actors playing gay men. He observed that those stories were often about coming out, forbidden love, or the HIV/AIDS crisis. He often respected the storytelling, but wanted to tell his own stories.
“I wanted to show a totally different side of the queer experience, which is this platonic, gay friendship and the importance of that. But it doesn’t exclude anyone else from watching it and feeling connected to it,” he says.
Who is the movie for? Again, two things can be true.
“So many people have said, ‘I connect with this, and it’s a great movie, and I’m not gay, but I love it.’ Or ‘I’m a lesbian, and I love it,'” he says.
But also: “I’m not making this to walk a straight person through the experience of gay culture.”
The film wastes no time, for example, explaining why the main characters choose the stage names Chrissy and Judy.
Flaherty’s Judy is a magnificently complex character: funny, sharp, self-destructive, frustrating. As a drag performer, he can be scattered and camp — or cooly mesmerizing.
We understand why Chrissy (a fantastic Wyatt Fenner, best known for Amazon Prime’s After Forever) doesn’t have enough faith in their stage routine to stay in New York. He bails for the safety of Shawn (an endearing Kiyon Spencer), his man in Philadelphia.
We think the film may suffer when we lose the chemistry between Chrissy and Judy, but it doesn’t. Bouncing between New York, Philadelphia, and Provincetown, Massachusetts, it becomes a captivating character study of a young, broke artist, adrift.
Chrissy Judy seems to shift easily between comedy and tragedy — a testament to Flaherty’s skill. He made the film with his cinematographer brother, Brendan Flaherty, a four-time Emmy nominee as part of the lighting team on Saturday Night Live. Initially they planned to shoot the film for around $150,000, and the script was about 100 pages. But when COVID hit, they pared it down to its essentials, and shot it for under $20,000 in accordance with recently enacted SAG-AFTRA rules.
Flaherty moved from New York to Provincetown during the pandemic, and the film premiered recently at the Provincetown International Film Festival. You can next see it at Outfest, where it will screen later this month, online and in-person.
“In the queer community, anyone who’s seen the film, or who I’ve talked about the film with says, ‘Oh, my God, I had this friend, or I had this exact same thing happened to me,'” Todd Flaherty says.
“There’s something — this bond, this like sacred bond that gets created between two people who don’t share a sexual connection — where you feel like because that element is removed, and the romance is removed, that you can just be your whole self with this person in a way that feels sometimes difficult in romantic relationships. At least, you know, for young gay men.”
Though Flaherty plays Judy, he says that in real life, he has been the Chrissy in a relationship — the person who leaves an ambiguous friendship behind in favor of what seems like a more lasting commitment.
That meant Fenner was playing a character inspired by Flaherty’s experience — though he wasn’t playing Flaherty.
“I think it was an opportunity to identify with an aspect of the queer experience that we all can appreciate but that hasn’t been told on film before,” says Fenner. “Which is that we find our chosen family, we grow with these people, and in some places we need to grow for ourselves, with ourselves, and that doesn’t mean that we don’t want someone in our lives anymore.
“But with as much grace and love as possible, we may try to identify our own road. And then we find ourselves coming back to these relationships.”
Movies have returned again and again to platonic relationships that may turn into something more, from romantic comedies to tragic romances. But these stories are almost always told from a heterosexual perspective.
“What’s happened in the gay community since marriage equality, which is amazing, is this idea that we should start to operate under these heteronormative relationships, and live that lifestyle, because we have the ability to now, and a lot of people want to,” says Flaherty. “And then I think there are people like me — like Judy — who say, ‘I like that I have the option to have that. But also, is that right for me?'”
Main image: Wyatt Fenner, left, and Todd Flaherty in Chrissy Judy