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A Case of Date Rape

"It's a date-rape movie," declares first-time filmmaker Douglas Tirola. The 27-year-old writer-director of A Reason to Believe doesn't beat around the bush; neither does his smart, well-intentioned movie.

A Reason to Believe tells the story of Charlotte (Allison Smith, who played Jane Curtin's daughter on Kate & Allie), a cute, popular girl at a generic middle-American university who is in a monogamous relationship with Wesley (Danny Quinn, son of Anthony), a fraternity brother. Wesley's frat enjoys a hard-earned reputation for hedonistic partying and sexual shenanigans. But, contrary to that rep, Wesley is a sensitive Nineties guy -- a bit possessive, but basically a sweetheart -- who only has eyes for Charlotte. And she for him. The trouble starts when, against Wesley's wishes, Charlotte attends a wild party at his frat while he's out of town. Charlotte gets drunk and dances suggestively with Wesley's best friend and frat brother Jim (Jay Underwood). When Charlotte feels the queasiness of one too many beers, she ducks into Wesley's room to sleep it off. Jim follows. She sighs as he slips off her shoes and massages her feet, but when his hands don't stop at her ankles she tells him to stop. He doesn't.

If Camille Paglia and Anita Hill had co-written Animal House, it might have come off a lot like A Reason to Believe. Given the controversial subject matter, Tirola's film could have easily become a PC button-pusher; the big surprise (apart from the quirky, ironic casting of Mark Metcalf -- Neidermeyer in Animal House -- as the university's levelheaded Dean Kirby) is the care Tirola takes to give voice to all sides of the date-rape issue. "It's a sticky movie for rape activists because it doesn't follow the party line to the letter," Tirola explains. "It's not anti-male. By the same token, fraternities would have preferred us to show them in a better light, as if they were about philanthropic car washes or something. In order to change anyone's mind, you have to look credible to both sides. You have to forget about the hard-core frat guys, and you have to write off the fervent feminists, and hopefully find some middle ground.

"This movie tries to show what it's really like," the young auteur continues. "I sat down to write a story about a group of friends in college. I wanted to include a date rape as part of the experience; it sort of evolved into the central focus. I personally was not involved in any situation like that, but I'm sure I know some people who were. I mean, I think almost anyone has at least one incident; any guy who's been in a sexual situation involving alcohol intake might look back and consider whether they might have crossed some sort of line, even if the woman involved didn't say anything."

Tirola's movie takes a clear stance against date rape even as it presents a relatively sympathetic view of the character who commits it. "These guys are not buffoons," Tirola asserts. "Jim's an intelligent, articulate guy who genuinely believes he's done nothing wrong. A lot of people feel the same way he does. But they don't express it. His views are close to Camille Paglia's; she thinks date rape is a myth. Men are animals, aggressors; women should know when they're sending mixed messages."

To Tirola's surprise, most of the staunchest defender's of Jim's behavior have been female. "One woman who saw the movie summed it up," he relates. "She said, 'There's no such thing as date rape. Every woman knows exactly what she's doing.'"

Tirola quotes a passage from a Camille Paglia essay that further illustrates this line of thinking: "'The only solution to date rape is female self-awareness and self-control.'"

The filmmaker doesn't share Paglia's hard-line stance, but he does believe in common sense. "The head of campus security at Miami University gave me what I think was the best analogy," Tirola reveals. "She said, 'If I was going to New York, I'd like to think that I could stick a $100 bill to my forehead and walk through Times Square without an incident. In fact, I should be able to do that. But I wouldn't recommend that anyone try it. I'd like to think that as a woman I could wear a skirt as short as I want to a frat party, get drunk, flirt, dance, even pass out with my skirt over my waist, and not be bothered. But I wouldn't recommend it.'"

In Tirola's film, Jim gets his comeuppance; he implicates himself by erupting in an indignant, emotional outburst at a campus hearing. As a plot device, the flareup feels contrived; it's one of the movie's weakest points and highlights the film's biggest problem -- the sacrifice of narrative flow and credibility to score didactic points. Still, Tirola candidly defends the scene. "Everyone's done that at one time or another," he reasons. "You get so frustrated, you just vent. Besides, all the research I did showed it was unlikely that kid [Jim] would get busted in real life. And this is a movie. You don't want to sit through it for two hours only to see that guy walk. So I almost had to have him incriminate himself."

Despite such occasional lapses, A Reason to Believe generally does an admirable job of illuminating many sides of a contentious subject without getting too clinical or dogmatic. It doesn't hurt Tirola's cause that his attractive young actors turn in uniformly credible (if less than galvanizing) performances, or that his writing presents a funny and fairly accurate depiction of Greek life on campus.

"I went to college [Miami University of Ohio as an undergrad and Columbia University for an M.F.A. in writing]. I belonged to a frat. That's the way it is," Tirola professes. "That whole Animal House/Revenge of the Nerds mentality -- it's a stereotype because it's basically correct. But there's more to it; they party hard when they're at parties, but other times they're savvy, intelligent guys.

"I've had women's groups complain that we made the frat party look too fun and festive, and I'm sure frats wish I had shown them in a more public-spirited, PC way," the filmmaker shrugs. "But come on! The problem isn't with the institution. It's with the individuals. Eliminating frat parties would not eliminate date rape on campus. Jim would have had similar problems if he had been a truck driver or a garbage collector. And as far as exaggerating the party aspect, when we went on tour to screen the movie at colleges around the country, the stories we heard made our toga party look tame by comparison. One school had a 'pimps and prostitutes' party; at another one they wanted to show us a videotape of this girl sleeping with five guys. Then there was this woman who was the head of the women's group at one college who was advocating a ten-year ban on all heterosexual sex until men learn how to treat women with respect. If we showed any of those things in our movie, people would think it was ridiculous, but that's how some people really think.


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