Supernova is a sad, beautiful film about gay men, but not like that. Unlike so many LGBTQ+ projects, this one doesn’t involve AIDS, and unlike so many celebrated gay stories, it doesn’t include any queer characters being assaulted by the people who are supposed to love them. In fact, from a certain perspective it doesn’t even matter that the lead characters— Sam and Tusker—are gay, and that’s what makes this tearjerking movie such an unexpected joy.
Let’s start with the tears: Tusker is a brilliant American novelist who has lived in England for ages, building a nearly perfect life with husband Sam. Now, however, Tusker has early onset dementia, and while he still mostly seems like himself, there’s no denying that he’s in decline. So while he can still manage it, Tusker and Sam are traveling cross country in their RV, visiting their friends and family and spending as much time enjoying each other as they can.
And it’s clear they really do enjoy each other: Stanley Tucci (as Tusker) and Colin Firth (as Sam) have the chemistry of people who have loved each other for most of their lives. Their language of casual touches and across-the-room eye contact says as much about their marriage as the script, and writer-director Harry Macqueen underlines their wordless communication by letting the camera linger on them as they simply exist together. While we watch them spooning in bed or chatting while dinner gets made, we understand how many private, lovely things are going to vanish along with Tusker’s mind.
That’s clearest in a breathtaking scene at a surprise party Tusker has arranged for Sam. The gathering offers them one last chance to celebrate with the people in their lives, and over dinner, Tusker stands to deliver a speech. When he realizes he can’t read what’s on the page, Sam smoothly steps in to help, taking the speech from Tusker’s hand and reading it aloud to the room. Midway through, he realizes the speech is about how much Tusker loves him. You can trace a thousand emotions on Firth’s face as Sam uses his own voice to say what his husband has been trying to express.
Some people might balk at the overt dramatic structure of this scene, but for those of us who don’t mind a heightened narrative, the delivery of this speech has the force of a coup de theatre. Sam essentially assumes his husband’s identity while his husband is right there next to him. This loving act also contains the inevitability of Tusker’s death, and that’s the kind of symbolism that pushes this move out of pure realism and into something much more profound.
The structural surprises keep coming, especially when Sam learns a troubling reason that Tusker has been so excited to take this trip. His conclusion leads to a conclusion that’s as loving as it is devastating.
But what the movie never leads to is a tearful speech about how hard it is to be gay. Or how easy. Sam and Tusker never discuss their sexuality at all. They just are gay men. They just are physically affectionate. They just do have sex and bicker over breakfast and repeat old jokes they’ve been telling for decades.
In other words, Supernova is a movie about a couple in crisis who just happen to be gay. It’s assumed the audience will see themselves in this story, no matter who they are, because it’s never once suggested that a gay man’s love is any different from anyone else’s.
This is such a rare and welcome perspective in mainstream filmmaking that despite the heartbreaking story, Supernova might still be the feel-good event of the year.
Supernova is now in theatres and streaming on digital February 16.