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'Mangus' director mines life in small-town Texas for AGLIFF centerpiece film

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
In 'Mangus,' Ryan Boggus, second from right, plays a high school student who believes it's his birthright to play the son of God in 'Jesus Christ Spectacular.'

Filmmaker Ash Christian might have left Texas after graduating from high school, but he has carried with him colorful memories of a small-town upbringing that still influence his work.

The director's satirical "Mangus," the centerpiece of the Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival, mines an adolescence circumscribed by community theater and a Southern Baptist upbringing. The film tells of awkward and ambitious high school student Mangus (Austinite Ryan Boggus) who believes it his birthright to play Jesus in his school's production of "Jesus Christ Spectacular," a hodgepodge of "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar." Both his father and grandfather played Jesus in their youth, and Mangus will find no solace until he lands the play's starring role. Even a car accident that leaves him disabled cannot slow him. Did we mention it is a dark comedy?

Mangus must overcome a meddling and sex-crazed stepmother (Deborah Theaker) and flamboyant and monomaniacal nemesis Farrell (Austinite John Montoya) while dealing with the humility and affection of his randy phone-psychic mother (Jennifer Coolidge) and her 20-something lover (Austinite Peter Williams). Along for the ride, first as foil and later as accomplice, is Mangus' half-sister, Jessica Simpson (Heather Matarazzo), an affected blonde desperate to escape her trailer-park upbringing and who has recently started "identifying as a lesbian." Film icon John Waters even makes a cameo as Jesus, popping up in the most unholy of places (where women work under aliases) to offer inspiration.

The people populating Mangus' world are all somewhat grotesqueries, but Christian approaches his absurd cinematic family from a place of love. The movie is a farce, but it's also a testament to the resilience and enthusiasm inherent in community theater and the love that binds even the most dysfunctional families.

"It was like my entire social life revolved around small-town community theater," Christian said last week by phone. "I was living the real-life 'Waiting for Guffman,' and I loved it. It was actually sort of a charming experience. Looking back, it's a little less charming, but while you were doing it, it was great. It made me want to tell stories. It's why I do what I do today. So it's cool that such a small town offered me that."

After graduating from high school in Rockwall, the Paris, Texas, native, who says as a teen he performed in everything from "Peter Pan" to "Grease," moved to Los Angeles and began acting in commercials and television. At 19, he wrote his first movie, "Fat Girls," and the following year he directed the film, which would eventually screen at AGLIFF in 2007.

"Fat Girls" was an autobiographical tale of a young gay man growing up in a small town as an outsider with a 300-pound girl as his best friend. In his latest film, the issue of homosexuality is briefly addressed in the form of Farrell and Jessica Simpson's lesbian dalliance, but the lead character is never identified as gay. Though Mangus makes winking references to his love of ladies and chooses to shave his legs in order to add some speed to his dance kicks (pre-car-accident, of course), the character is presented as straight, despite the head-scratching evidence to the contrary.

"I wanted him to be totally ambiguous," Christian said. "I don't know what he is. I think the reason (for the ambiguity) is after I did 'Fat Girls,' everyone in Hollywood was like, 'Now you need to make a straight movie.' So I went out and made the gayest straight movie possible. I did theater. I had Coolidge. I had John Waters. I had everything gay, but no gay storyline. Except for the sister. I had to throw that in, for the girls. It was totally intentional about his ambiguity. People said I should do something more mainstream, and this is what I did. I did it out of spite in a weird way."

With his bit of cinematic nose-thumbing behind him, Christian says he plans to widen his artistic scope and tell stories that strike a balance between heart and quirk. Since filming "Mangus" in January of 2010, he has kept busy with film work both in front of and behind the camera, as well as small roles on television. "Petunia," a film he directed with Thora Birch as the star, is in post-production, and he recently wrapped filming on "Summer at Dog Dave's," a Rob Reiner movie in which Christian portrays an autistic sidekick to a writer played by Morgan Freeman. The week we spoke, he had auditioned for "The Book of Mormon" on Broadway and shot scenes for J.J. Abrams' new TV show, "Person of Interest."

Christian will take time out of his schedule to return for the screening tonight at the Paramount Theatre, and he says he is excited to revisit the film and see how Austin audiences respond.

"Austin has such cool people. I think they'll get it. I hope they get it, get the comedy and the small-town Texas story," Christian said. "I have a fondness for the characters. I'm not making fun of them at all, and that's really important to me. And I'm not making fun of Texas. I love Texas. I think the movie has a lot of heart. It was meant to, anyway."

modam@statesman.com; 912-5986