Bonus Track is screening at BFI London Film Festival and will arrive exclusively on Sky Cinema later this year.
Over the past few years, the LGBTQ+ coming-of-age flick has found a new and cheerful voice. Gone are the days when teens would come out only to become victims of homophobic attacks, parental disapproval or HIV and AIDS. In the new gay coming-of-age picture, happiness is deserved, even if there are a few slip-ups and stumbles along the way. This new positivity is welcome as movies celebrate LGBTQ+ relationships while drawing a line under the endless tragedies of the past. However, some of the struggles of the coming-out journey can be airbrushed away in the drive for positivity, and Julia Jackman’s debut feature Bonus Track does, at times, opt for feel-good vibes over a more realistic exploration of emerging gay love between two boys in the early noughties. However, while more character development and depth would have allowed Bonus Track to really sing, there is still a lot to love in Jackman’s musical mix tape written by Mike Gilbert and Josh O’Connor.
George (Joe Anders) is a music-obsessed teen about to fail every one of his GCSEs, including music. But to be fair, George is dealing, like so many during the dreaded GCSE years, with his emerging sexuality, a need to escape the mundane and find his artistic voice for the end-of-year talent show. But George’s world is about to change forever with the arrival of Max (Samuel Paul Small), the son of two famous musicians going through a public divorce. Max is the pole opposite of George; he is outgoing, confident and sure of his likes and dislikes, and it’s not long before a friendship and an unspoken attraction develops. As George and Max spend hours after school sharing their musical tastes and finding a voice in each other’s talents, romance begins to blossom among the mixtapes, but will they embrace the sparks of attraction, or is this a teenage mixtape that ends in heartbreak?
While Bonus Track beautifully embraces the music of 2006, it often struggles to reflect the gay experience of the time. While much progress had been made, including the repeal of Section 28, Bonus Track doesn’t fully embrace or reflect the struggles young gay teens faced during this period, especially concerning school life. Set the year before Stonewall’s groundbreaking campaign, “Some People Are Gay, Get Over It!” Bonus Track jettisons an opportunity to fully explore how George and Max’s tentative love dovetails with the journey toward equality and inclusion for LGBTQ+ young people in the early noughties. At the same time, the side stories surrounding George and Max, from the failing marriage of George’s parents (Jack Davenport and Alison Sudol) to Max’s struggle with his parent’s fame and the press intrusion surrounding him, are underdeveloped, never allowing us to build a complete picture of events or the vital role music plays in the lives of both boys.
However, for all its weaknesses, Jackman’s film is a loving, feel-good rom-com that celebrates gay teenage love through moments of beautifully timed comedy. The chemistry between Anders and Small is outstanding as the first sparks of attraction zip between them through a smile, eye contact or the gentle brush of a hand. Meanwhile, a cracking ensemble brings the laughs in bucket loads from Susan Wokoma to Nina Wadia, Ellie Kendrick and Ray Panthaki. With echoes of Get Real (1998), Handsome Devil (2016), and Sing Street (2016), Bonus Track has bags of potential from the outset, which makes it all the more disappointing that it opts for the tried and tested rather than something new and fresh. But while Bonus Track may not hit all the right notes in all the right places, it maintains a delightfully funny, feel-good atmosphere that is bound to attract audiences looking for a light gay rom-com full of charm and early noughties pop bangers.
While Bonus Track may not hit all the right notes in all the right places, it maintains a delightfully funny, feel-good atmosphere bound to attract audiences looking for a light gay rom-com full of charm and early noughties pop bangers.