Possibly the creepiest thing about Harry and Max - last year's Sundance scandal - is how resolutely normal it seems, once you get past the fact that it is a story about the tortured sexual relationship between two brothers. One would imagine that a film of this kind would take us from ominously shadowed flashbacks to increasingly lurid hints that finally culminate in a debauched final revelation of the brothers' secret. But instead, writer/director Christopher Münch (The Hours and Times) shoots the whole thing in bright sunlight, usually outdoors, mostly just Harry and Max talking amiably about nothing, as brothers will do, nothing seeming at all awry. Then the fondling begins, neither of them really wanting to go through with it, yet neither wanting to stop, either. It's a portrait of a thoroughly damaged relationship that tries never to point the finger, but forgets along the way to tell a compelling story.
Harry (Bryce Johnson) and Max (Cole Williams) obviously come from a family with issues, the least of which is their mother (Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas), who has made them into bubblegum pop icons. Harry is, at 23 years old, over the hill for a boy band superstar, and trying to figure out what to do during that risky post-band/pre-solo career/Justin Timberlake phase. Right now, he's a borderline alcoholic with the requisitely distant and bitchy girlfriend, slouching towards tabloid self-destruction. Sixteen-year-old Max is the new apple of their mother's eye, his career just getting underway, due more to his cherub-like good looks than any singing ability. Harry is (to say the least) baffled by his sexuality, a blurred sort of bisexual whose identity has long been confused by all the times that he and Max fooled around when they were much younger. Max, on the other hand, is fully out of the closet, a precociously self-satisfied teen who vacillates between wanting to solve all his brother's problems and wanting to stay far away.
Harry and Max begins with the brothers going on a camping trip, during which it becomes clear just how much Harry's mental state is deteriorating, which Max initially takes advantage of by trying to seduce him numerous times. Münch keeps the exact details of what they did together blurry, keeping it also unclear who initiated what, with Max fully admitting that he'd been attracted to Harry since he was only seven years old, but Harry (six years his senior) hardly able to claim that he'd been coerced or manipulated. The film is hardly coy about the incest that lies at its core - it's barely ten minutes in before Max is trying to give Harry a blowjob in their tent - but it seems strangely reticent about revealing much else about these characters. Although other people enter the film briefly - like their mother and Harry's ex-girlfriend Nikki (Rain Phoenix, so affectless she's almost invisible) whom Max is trying to convince to give Harry another chance before he completely self-destructs - they contribute nothing to our understanding of the central pair. And Münch's decision to make these boys into pop stars is only a distraction, as very little is ultimately made of it (except for a short coda narrated by Max that tries, and utterly fails, to give the film a humorous sendoff) as the film's negligible plot sputters and wheezes along.
What Münch has in Harry and Max is a pair of winning actors (Johnson especially, with his dead-on portrayal of an insecure celebrity's smarmy self-obsession) trying to illuminate a dark and deeply damaged relationship. But little comes of it all, besides some bad boy band tunes and unfortunate, tinny, therapy-laced dialogue about Harry's need to establish boundaries. Münch's courage to address a difficult subject can't in the end compensate for the fact that he just didn't have much to say about it in the end.
DVD extras include a director's commentary and a behind-the-scenes featurette.