When we enter a small-town gas station, many of us are quick to get in, out and on our way. Others are content to linger, to observe the fleeting interactions and become small-time voyeurs. That location serves as the nucleus of director Yen Tan's latest film, Pit Stop, which follows the parallel lives of two working-class gay men in a small Texas town.
North Texas is all over the film, from co-writer David Lowery (Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Pioneer) to producers Eric Steele (Texas Theatre) and James M. Johnston. Lowery and Tan's script is beautifully detailed, its characters played with quiet desperation, and Lowery gave it some rural and regional structure.
"It got to a point where I thought I'd done what I could, but since I'm ESL, I wanted the dialogue to sound real," Tan says. "So we went through [the script] together, and in the process we brainstormed some subplots, wrote new scenes. All the dialogue was rewritten or revised."
Bill Heck (Gabe) and Marcus DeAnda (Ernesto) are the men in question, both reeling from the disintegration of past relationships. And yet, Pit Stop works as an ensemble cast, drawing friends, family and ex-lovers into the landscape to point out that love, gay or straight, is hard to find and keep alive.
Tan was born in Malaysia, got his filmmaking start in Dallas and has been living in Austin for about two years now. That outsider's view, paired with the fact that Tan is also gay, informed Pit Stop's narrative, which had been in his head in some form since 2003. Back then, he was making road trips from Dallas to Houston and observing interactions at small-town gas stations and convenience stores.
"I think coming from another country, as an outsider, you take that perspective," he says. "You observe. Coming [to America] at such an impressionable age, everything was new to me. A decade ago, the idea was more a matter of curiosity, trying to figure out who lived in these small towns, and were there gay people who lived there. I wondered if their lives were different."
Tan approached several men, first via the now-ancient world of gay Internet chat rooms. He went from chatting online, attempting to earn their trust, to emailing and eventually meeting with a select group in coffee shops.
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"It was collecting data and seeing certain characteristics that kept coming up," he says. "A lot of them were closeted or semi-closeted, most were also married, or had been married, or had kids. And then it was about making a small-town narrative, and a story line that would also resonate with me, as an outsider."
Tan gracefully abstains from using homophobia as a plot point, instead letting Gabe and Ernesto weave the emotional and physical minutiae of their daily lives without much emphasis on what society thinks of them. Heck and DeAnda's performances are excellent, but Amy Siemetz, who plays Gabe's ex, Shannon, is the real gaze-stealer here. Her awkward date with co-worker Winston (John Merriman) is followed up with her clumsily reaching for Gabe back at the home they share. She kisses him, says she misses him, and they dance together, because Gabe still feels the psychic link to the mother of his child.
"There's a sense of things not being as tough as we think they are," Tan says. "In a small town, we assume people are more narrow-minded or bigoted, but there is a general sense of live-and-let-live in those communities. I think that's interesting. It also fosters this layer of internalized homophobia. There's the political side of being out, and that's important, but with them it's something they shouldn't broadcast, so they compartmentalize."
7:30 p.m. Saturday and 10:15 p.m. Monday at the Magnolia