The documentary “Do I Sound Gay?” sneaks up on you. What begins as a first-person account of one man’s quest to change the way he speaks soon becomes something closer to pop anthropology, in the process throwing in a bit of sociolinguistics and stand-up comedy.
This is, as it happens, a very funny little movie (as well as a sweet, wise and relatable one). Who among us — gay, straight, male, female — isn’t at least a little self-conscious about the way he or she sounds? As the elfin-voiced writer and radio raconteur David Sedaris jokes about being frequently mistaken for a woman on the phone, “I don’t think I sound like a woman. I think I sound like a very small man. Like this high [holding fingers six inches apart].”
But the focus of David Thorpe’s film isn’t as broad or as simple as our shared insecurity. Rather, it examines, with a focus that is both generous and sharp, the mechanics and music of vocal communication by gay men. Not all gay men, mind you, but the ones that Thorpe, who is gay, describes — in tongue-in-cheek narration — as the “braying ninnies” he encountered during one train ride to Fire Island, N.Y. It was at that moment that Thorpe, who had recently broken up with a boyfriend and was wallowing in corrosive self-pity, began to realize that he hated the way he talked.
“Do I Sound Gay?” is loosely structured around Thorpe’s visits to a couple of speech pathologists, who provide him with clinical analyses of his voice, along with exercises to change the things he doesn’t like about it (and that he believes make him sound gay). In between, Thorpe, a former print journalist, interviews friends, people on the street, a 15-year-old victim of gay bashing and such celebrities as Sedaris, newscaster Don Lemon, fashion consultant Tim Gunn and sex columnist Dan Savage.
Savage’s comments are among the film’s most provocative — particularly his theory that some gay men recoil from effeminate voices because of unconscious misogyny — and they give the film surprising depth. Not everyone will like what they hear in “Do I Sound Gay?” but Thorpe doesn’t flinch from whatever awkward or controversial findings his subjects offer up, especially when they concern himself. The filmmaker’s curiosity as a reporter is tempered by an unapologetically subjective perspective. This is his story, he keeps reminding us, but in a way that feels more open to surprises than a Michael Moore film.
There’s plenty to like about “Do I Sound Gay?” Word nerds will get off on the references to “volitional code-switching,” and the touchy-feely crowd will like the movie’s message of tolerance. “Why don’t you just learn to accept how you sound?” asks one of Thorpe’s friends, as the filmmaker is deep into his remediation of his drawn-out vowels, over-articulated consonants and sibilant “esses.”
That’s an excellent question. It’s one of many good ones raised by this subversive yet sensitive film.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains some coarse language and pixelated sex scenes. 77 minutes.