Kill your preconceptions, too. It’s saying something that Daniel Radcliffe can dance with a brush and not make you wonder when he’s going to ride it into a game of Quidditch.
Here, however, a non-wizardly use for brooms isn’t the half of his separation from Hogwarts. Blow jobs behind bookshelves, legs behind ears, homicides behind counter-cultural poetry: none of these things featured in Potter’s learning arc. But they do in the education of Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet who is our eyes and ears in John Krokidas’ literary coming-of-age tale.
So do drugs, murder and wanking at the typewriter, as Radcliffe’s Ginsberg arrives at Columbia University in 1944. There, he finds attention vampire, muse and troubled lover Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) stood on a desk, reciting dirty poetry; William Burroughs (Ben Foster) in a bathtub, sucking on nitrous oxide and swaggering On The Road author to be Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston).
So begins Ginsberg’s personal development, which finds parallels in Radcliffe’s on-screen development. Ginsberg’s initial reticence gives Radcliffe an excuse to retain his own natural reserve. But Radcliffe expands his range to embrace tongue sandwiches and flesh out a study of a shy young poet edging towards greatness in a story that suggests blossoming creativity and desire go hand (and willy) in hand.
Not that it’s a one-man show. Debut director Krokidas trounces recent Beat pics Howl and On The Road for kinetic energy, shaking up a jazzy, poppy soundtrack to go with his druggy, dreamy, dirty images. Comparisons to Hogwarts fit less well than comparisons to the first flush of ’90s ‘New Queer Cinema’ (Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki).
Radcliffe’s co-stars help to bring life to the revolutionary literary movement; Huston struts, Foster croaks waspish remarks from the fringes and DeHaan (Chronicle) revels in charismatic ambiguity as Carr – whose involvement with clingy lover David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) leads to lethal plot twists.
Elizabeth Olsen doesn’t fare so well as Kerouac’s girlfriend, reduced to a slender subplot among plot strands – first loves, traumas, literary fumbles – that threaten to fray in the final third. But they would fray entirely without Krokidas’ confident direction, or without Radcliffe nailing his game. Broom in hand or not, he cleans up.
Sex, drugs, murder, radical verse and Radcliffe make persuasive bedfellows in Krokidas’ live-wire lit-pic. It gets busy, but fizzy direction and Rad’s rigour help to keep its pulse alive.