HOMEBODY: Joseph Sackett’s Debut Feature Premieres at Outfest 2021

Making its world premiere this Sunday as part of the Outfest 2021 Film Festival in Los Angeles (and online, details below), Homebody mixes supernatural surprise with personal reflection to deliver unusual comedic portraiture. Defined as a genderqueer body-transfer fantasy, it concerns a nine-year-old boy (Tre Ryder) who’s so obsessed with his babysitter (Colby Minifie) that, for one increasingly frantic day, he becomes her. Homebody writer and director Joseph Sackett, an NYU Tisch School of the Arts graduate whose previous works have screened in competition at Cannes, Slamdance, and Outfest, begins by describing this material’s evolution from a short film into his first feature.

“When I made ‘I Was in Your Blood,’ I didn’t have any intention of expanding it into anything larger. I had been at a film festival with a different project. We won some film stock, 16 millimeter, and so I wanted to write something little just to use that free film stock, that turned into ‘I Was in Your Blood,’ which is a story about a little boy who is in love with his babysitter, although a nine-year-old version of love is not a love that says, ‘I want you,’ but a love that says, ‘I want to be you.’ At the end of that short, the little boy has a dream that he goes into his babysitter’s body.

“Thinking about it after finishing that short, I really liked being in that world, in that childhood fantasy space. And so I thought, what if he didn’t just dream about going into his babysitter’s body, but he actually got to do that, like live for a day as a woman. That’s where the idea came from, although of course it’s steeped in my own childhood fantasies. I loved my babysitters, there were so many older women in my life, who I admired and looked up to.”

And how much of Homebody is autobiographical?

“Emotionally, this story is 100% ripped from the headlines of my childhood,” Mr. Sackett notes, recalling locking himself in the bathroom with his mother’s makeup. “I had gotten enough societal feedback to know that my instincts, the things that I like to do: play with dolls, hang out with the girls — society had taught me that these were not things that I was supposed to do. An important part of this memory is that the door was locked because I didn’t want anyone to see me doing these things that I knew were gender transgressions, even if I didn’t have that language at the time. And that scene finds its way both into the short ‘I Was in Your Blood’ and Homebody: this image of Johnny’s lead character closing himself in the bathroom and putting on lipstick.

“There are a lot of little autobiographical details that find their way into shots and scenes in the movie, but in a bigger-picture sense, there’s that emotional longing of wanting to be someone else, wanting to be in someone else’s skin. Feeling somewhere between being a boy and being a girl and being uncomfortable in that space, all those emotional needs are very autobiographical, very personal.”

While Homebody’s press kit cites broad comedies such as Big and Freaky Friday as inspirations, more recent films summon the thorny ethical issue of hijacking someone else’s body, such as Get Out (which confronts it head on), or Wonder Woman 1984 (which idiotically dances around it, thus provoking concern), but Mr. Sackett defers instead to an artful if less popular film.

“Those two specifically weren’t in the mix,” he explains. “The biggest inspirational touch point for me was Being John Malkovich. Partially because, unlike something like Freaky Friday, where there’s a body swap, this is more of a body transfer movie, it’s a one-way street. Though I did really look to bigger crowds pleasers, like Big, and Freaky Friday [either Freaky Friday, he states {we neglect to mention the recent Freaky}]. I wanted to make a movie that was entertaining, classically structured, that had a crowd-pleasing vibe, but bring my own queer sensibility to the table. I hadn’t seen a movie that is relatively family friendly in this genre done in a very queer way. That was exciting to me.”

In addition to Ryder and Minifie carrying the movie (the latter mostly, sometimes in tandem, playing the former), Homebody features the onscreen talents of Julian Cihi as a YouTube guru (intentionally echoing Mr. Rogers!) who makes possible their, um, bonding experience, and Purva Bedi as a heavily pregnant client about to challenge the doula-ing skillz of the babysitter-turned-doula-turned-little-boy. To say more would be to give away the baby and the bathwater, however Zoe Chao, Dina Hasem, Whitmer Thomas, and Jasmin Walker round out the cast as rightfully puzzled friends and associates. Maria Dizzia plays the boy’s mother (and babysitter’s employer), a pivotal role.

“My mom was a very progressive mom of the ‘90s,” Mr. Sackett reveals, “in that she was permissive with me doing whatever I wanted, at home. I was allowed to dress how I wanted. For my birthday one year, I wanted a fancy jewelry case, I didn’t even own any jewelry, but I thought: ‘This jewelry case is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.’ She got that for me, which made me very happy. And yet there was also this understanding, it was probably said explicitly, but I don’t really remember because I was so young, but there was this understanding that these are things you can do in private, but not in public. One year for Halloween, I wanted to be Princess Jasmine from Aladdin. Instead I ended up going as a vampire, or something a little more masculine. It was like this idea that you can dress as a girl at home, but not outside.

“That was coming from a place of maternal protective instinct. She was just scared for my safety, and knew that boys dressing as girls, boys expressing their femininity out in the world, at least at that time, was not safe. So yes, I did experience approval at home and I knew I was growing up in a safe space. But there was always the sense that: we are safe inside the home, but once you go outside, that’s a different story. This movie is very much, in my mind, also playing with that dichotomy between home and the rest of the world, between inside and outside.”

A potentially more complex question about considering the difference between feminine psychology and female biology sends Mr. Sackett onto a third topic:

“No, I didn’t think about a distinction. But that’s a really interesting point. The question that I thought you were going to ask, which is a question that a lot of people ask, and I think it’s a good one and an important one, is: Is this a trans story. And what I say is, I don’t personally claim this as a trans story, because I don’t identify as trans, but I do identify as genderqueer. So to me, everything about this story is genderqueer. It is about not fitting neatly into the gender binary, it’s about how exciting but also how scary it is to transgress those gender boundaries. And it’s also about how fun it can be to play in that liminal space between boy on this side and girl on that side, but to be a little more fluid somewhere in between. And in terms of the character of Johnny [the boy], he is very much a portrait of myself at that age.”

For a small film with big ambitions, largely crowdfunded yet pro-lensed by cinematographer Laura Valladao on Arri Alexa, a New York story its Portland-Oregon-native helmer says could have taken place anywhere, Homebody’s primary strength is in its performances. While the kid is good (and apparently squeaked by in voice-over just before his voice changed!), the woman mostly playing him, Colby Minifie, holds the show together.

“The credit there 100% belongs to Colby,” Mr. Sackett enthuses. “We had worked together a couple of times before, and I knew I wanted to work with her, I wrote the part for her. We had a series of script meetings before we even started rehearsals, where she had gone through the script many, many times, had pages full of notes, asked such insightful questions that led me to rewriting something, she had ideas for how to reword some of the dialogue so it sounded a little more organic, a little looser. It was a very collaborative process, and I really appreciated that.

“Most of our rehearsal sessions would involve Colby, Tre, and I together, workshopping some scenes, hanging out and talking. Then Tre would take off, and Colby would just recreate with me what she had seen Tre do when he was just being himself. She really threw herself into this part, brought so much to it, really did her homework. Her performance is my favorite part of this movie.”

There’s also no denying that teamwork made this movie possible, centering around NYU’s Tisch School, including of course Mr. Sackett, plus his familiar producer Joy Jorgensen (recipient of the SAG Award and the Media Services Award) of Killjoy Films, production designer Yu-Hsuan Chen, and editor Alan Wu. But wait! There’s more…

“There was a family vibe on set,” Joe elaborates, “and that is because so many of us had worked together before. Also, our costume designer, Lillian Prentiss, our composer, Ariel Marx, our cinematographer Laura Valladao, our first AD Jacqueline Dow, our second AD Jack Kendrick, all these people are from the NYU family. So these are people I went to film school with. They’re pretty much all people who I’d worked with before.

“With Ariel, my composer, this was our eighth collaboration. When you get to the point where you have worked with the same people so many times, you develop a shorthand language. With Ariel, for instance. I can say something that would sound like coded language to an outsider, like, ‘Can we get more shadow at the end?’ and she knows what that means. You know, she knows that the last couple notes maybe sound too happy, and I want it to be a little darker, a little more serious. You develop this shorthand in your language and how you work together, and there’s just a built-in sense of trust.

“Ariel is absolutely the real deal. I honestly believe she’s going to go on to be one of the great film composers of our generation. She works very hard. She’s a multi-instrumentalist. I have nothing but great things to say about her.” (Indeed, as Joe describes their process of going from playlists to MIDI tracks to live musicians, you can hear the impressive results throughout the film.)

Next up for Joe is a new feature (currently at a fourth draft he’s liking), Cross Pollination: “It’s a queer sci-fi rom-com, which is a genre mash-up that I’m very excited about. It’s about an alien on Earth who is struggling to pass as a human, but things get complicated when he falls in love with a man, and gets knocked up.” Some similar themes, but aiming for an ‘R’ rating.

Meanwhile, with Homebody, recently picked up for representation by CAA, Mr. Sackett waxes hopeful:

“That’s kind of my dream, to make something that a gay kid of any age could watch also with like, their aunt and their grandpa, and have everyone understand it, get it. I am interested in inviting as many people to the table as possible.”

Homebody screens Sunday, 15 August, 4:30 p.m. at Harmony Gold, 7655 W. Sunset, L.A., and is available for streaming 16–18 August. Tickets here.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Writer-director-producer Gregory earned a Cinema degree from USC SCA, worked many industry jobs, and won L.A. Press Club’s top Entertainment Journalism award.