Roland Emmerich has been entertaining America for years with big-budget, gung-ho spectacles like "Independence Day" and "White House Down," but in his latest film, "Stonewall," the openly gay director scales down his vision to tell a more intimate story, that of a teenager who lives through the historic gay-rights riots at the Stonewall Inn.
Jeremy Irvine ("War Horse") plays Danny, who in the spring of 1969 lands in the West Village with a suitcase and a few dollars. Behind him in small-town Indiana are a broken romance with Joe (Karl Glusman) and a horrified father (David Cubitt). Danny may not have much personality -- he's basically a pretty ingénue with tousled hair -- but he represents the fate of many gay kids at the time. One moment he's a football star with a scholarship to Columbia; the next, he's homeless.
Danny avoids the local predators by making friends with Ray (a very good Jonny Beauchamp), a transgender prostitute whose flamboyant friends are a mix of fictional and real-life characters. Danny soon finds himself caught between Ray's lively but dead-end gang, the respectable Trevor (an older gay-rights activist played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and the dangerous pimp Ed Murphy (Ron Perlman), who also runs the Stonewall Inn.
That dive-bar turns out to be a fraught and fascinating place. It's portrayed as a safe haven for non-straights of all stripes, though its patrons resent the diluted drinks, lack of running water and constant raids by cops. While Trevor talks peaceful protest, the anger of a younger generation simmers, leading to an explosive night that recalls the crucial moments of Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing."
Written by Jon Robin Baitz, "Stonewall" often achieves the youthful vitality and urgency of the Broadway musical "Rent." Its characters serve mostly to flesh out a colorful time and place. Emmerich's West Village has the cozy, dreamy feel of a stage (it's a lovingly built reproduction) where characters cross paths, shed tears and share joy. The film's climactic riot -- a superb sequence that crackles with danger -- even includes a musical number of sorts when the rioters perform a rude cancan for the police. What "Stonewall" lacks in narrative power it makes up for with energy, sincerity and heart.