Geography Club, now out on DVD, is a loose adaptation of Brent Hartinger’s fine young adult book about gay teen Russell Middlebrook (the appealing Cameron Deane Stewart) navigating high school and his sexual identity. Russell has a secret relationship going with school quarterback Kevin (Justin Deeley). The relationship is evolving at the right speed for both boys. However, after Min (Ally Maki) spies the guys kissing one night, she invites them to join Geography Club, a gay student group. The club, a secret gay-straight alliance, is named “something boring” to protect the queer kids and prevent other students from joining.
While Russell finds himself first observing and then participating in Geography Club, Kevin wants to keep his sexuality secret. Geography Club plays out all the dramas of teen life, from Russell’s anxiety about being asked to date a girl to a bullying incident and Kevin’s angst about coming out. The film makes the issues surrounding peer pressure and self-expression credible despite the supporting characters being underdeveloped and the film being somewhat haphazardly constructed.
In a recent Skype session, Cameron Deane Stewart spoke about playing Russell and making Geography Club.
Gary M. Kramer: What were you like as a teen?
Cameron Deane Stewart: Oh, boy! I’m 22 now. A couple years ago, I was in high school myself. I was the kid who was friends with everyone, but I didn’t really have a group that I felt I fit into. I was athletic, but didn’t play sports in high school.
GMK: What appealed to you about Russell?
CDS: Russell is mature for his age. He is strong-hearted and strong-willed. I guess I fell in love with his vulnerability. I felt there were so many positives that could come from playing him. The ultimate goal is for people to see Russell as the character he is.
GMK: How did you identify with him?
CDS: Everyone struggled with something in high school. I came from a pretty conservative place in Texas. I watched kids in high school get bullied, or they didn’t come out, or were stereotyped as the gay kid. This film was an opportunity for me to send a message to the youth that love is universal and that there is group out there that is going through exactly what you are.
GMK: What do you think about Russell being a role model?
CDS: So many times, in TV and movies, the gay characters are—I don’t want to say stereotyped—but they centralize on one idea of what that person may be. Russell breaks that mold. He’s average. A guy’s guy, in some sense. I wanted him to be relatable and I wanted to show a different aspect of a kid struggling with his (identity). I wanted him to be an everyman, not extraordinary or out of the ordinary. I wanted him to be relatable emotionally, and break the (gay) stereotypes as much as I could—not a caricature of what the gay kid might be. He isn’t (a stereotype) in the novel or in the film.
GMK: Do you feel pressure playing a character that has become a favorite of readers?
CDS: Sure! He’s not quite Harry Potter, but it is fantastic to have such a built-in following. The goal from the beginning was to show an honest portrayal of a kid struggling in high school. I had not read the books prior to filming, and so I based the character off the script. But I wanted it to be as truthful as possible to what novelist Brent Hartinger and screenwriter Edmund Entin wrote, and bring it to life.
GMK: How did you approach the character?
CDS: The best way I can describe it is taking experiences from people I saw who struggled to come out, or tried to find a group they fit into. Everyone has been in a situation where they don’t fit in. You take that and mold that to fit the character. I guess I never felt in with the Jocks. I was athletic, but there’s that period where I felt like an outcast, and didn’t quite fit in, so I pull from those emotions.
GMK: Do you play football?
CDS: (Laughs) I’m not good at football. I played soccer for eleven years. I played football in middle school, but once I hit high school, it fizzled out. I remember that last day of shooting, the football game was our final scene. I was so winded running up and down the field. Exercising is the last thing on my to do list. I still do it as minimally as I can.
GMK: Russell is described as a romantic. Are you romantic, or are you more of a love ‘em and leave ‘em kind of guy?
CDS: I’m a romantic. I can’t lie. I’m a sucker for rom-coms.
GMK: Russell risks everything to define himself. Do you think he makes the right choices?
CDS: Yes, 100%. I think there is no reward without risk. He has a complete understanding of himself by the end, and there’s no use in being with anyone else if you don’t know who you are.
© 2014 Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” You can follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.