On Act Naturally

“Costume Designer: Madre Naturaleza.”

This quick joke, hidden in plain sight among the opening credits of Act Naturally, is just one of the many little jewels in this NDST-friendly film’s treasure chest. Screenwriter and director JP Riley has crafted an all-around terrific film that works so well on so many different levels: it’s a primer on social nudism that’s also a collection of profound stories about journeys to acceptance.

The main characters are the estranged sisters Leah and Charlie. Leah is anal..ytical and high-strung, while Charlie is more of a free spirit, not without her own peeves. But their character arcs—as they travel together across the country to deal with the realities of claiming their father’s inheritance—trace out their trajectories in surprising, and complementary, ways. 
If you’ve seen the trailer (which you should, but don’t stop there! See the whole film!), you know that their inheritance is a nudist resort. And each of the resort regulars–from manager Kristi to legal counsel Rusty to chef Cory, and yoga instructor/lifeguard Lauren and handyman/bartender Trevor and resident newlywed Natalie–holds a piece of the puzzle that the sisters must work out as they learn to let it all hang out. Why did their dad own this place? Why didn’t he tell them about it? Why on earth would anybody want to live at a nudist resort?!?!
The characters’ own stories of how they came to embrace social nudism are illuminated by pithy flashbacks, and these quick glimpses into the past are just as important, or more, for Charlie and Leah’s understanding than the “eyefuls” of flesh all around them. It turns out that love is complicated and sex is messy (surprise!) but that all of the resort regulars have learned that the place where they most feel at home, and where they most feel themselves, is there at Bear Lake, the naturist resort that Leah and Charlie are now contemplating selling to developers… Will the sisters make the right decision?
The film is graced by wonderful actors who give spot-on performances, great on-location shooting at Olive Dell Ranch in California, and a catchy, very appropriate and current soundtrack. I happened to see the film at one of its many showings featuring a Q&A session with the director himself, who graciously spoke about the film’s challenging range of tonalities (from tragic to comic); the difficulty of off-season, cold-weather shoots; the casting process and what it’s meant for the actors; and the ridiculous “penis count” imposed by some Canadian province… In editing, Riley even had to digitally add a laptop here, a folder there, to keep the penis count at an acceptable dozen instances. Prurient, nude-phobic, pro-violence ratings systems in the US and Canada are woefully inadequate for a film like this, a fact that makes the film’s naturist audience all the more important for its support.

Ultimately the sisters’ epiphanies are hard-fought and for that, all the more meaningful. What they find is that even though nothing’s perfect, and nobody / no body is perfect, the acceptance and celebration of that essential imperfection can be almost…perfect.

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