David Sedaris’ essays are like taxidermy shops: packed with mesmerizing yet bizarre oddities that unfailingly assert the strange beauty of being human.
Severe in their humor, Sedaris’ stories spur a kind of nervous laughter, a quality director Kyle Patrick Alvarez captures in his new thought-provoking new film, “C.O.G.,” an adaptation of a story by Sedaris.
“C.O.G.” follows David (Jonathan Groff), an effete Yale graduate who spends his summer working on an apple farm in Oregon. It is in the neighboring town that David meets Jon (Denis O’Hare), a flea-market peddler, army veteran, street preacher, and self-proclaimed child of God (C.O.G.) who promptly takes the young man under his wing as a mentee and spiritual advisee. However, David quickly learns that Jon is not the friendly Christian he appears to be.
Alvarez was attracted to the story because of the way it handles heavy topics like spirituality and sex.
“I read it when I was really young,” he said in an interview with Spectator. “I was, like, 15 years old, and I think what appealed to me the most was the way it handled themes of religion and sexuality in a way that I hadn’t really seen before.”
He was also drawn to the balance the essay strikes between humor and darker elements.
“I’ve always really liked dark comedy, and I think dark comedy has gotten confused lately,” Alvarez said. “People think dark comedy is accidentally killing someone and then having to hide the body.”
Alvarez praised his contemporaries, the Coen brothers, for their handling of such material as directors. He described “C.O.G.’s” comedy as “darker, from a human place,” and that his humor is much like Sedaris’ in that it comes from an uncomfortable place.
“I think people like feeling uncomfortable in theaters,” he said. “There’s something enjoyable about being pushed a little bit.”
One of the most riveting moments in the film is when David, a confirmed atheist who finds himself to be above religion, has a tearful moment of clarity in a church.
“It doesn’t make you a weaker person to need the feeling of something more or greater than you,” Alvarez said.
The film features instances of Christian kindness and brutality alike. Although not religious himself, many of the director’s closest friends are, so he strived to honor them by making a film that didn’t insult their convictions.
“I never wanted it to be didactic,” he said. “Yes, are there people that use Christianity to hurt other people? Absolutely. To deny that would be absurd. Are there good Christians, are there real people who have these truly great values of how to treat other people? Absolutely—and I think that those are all represented in the movie.”
“C.O.G.” is playing at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th St., and City Cinemas Village East Cinema, 181-189 Second Ave.