With Gentlemen Broncos taking a beating from the critics, why should you see it? Because it's actually a warm and funny piece of metafiction that celebrates creativity and embracing your weird side. Plus, who could resist Sam Rockwell's battle stag?
There's a scene early on in Gentlemen Broncos where science fiction novelist Ronald Chevalier (the always wonderful Jemaine Clement) is holding a workshop on fantasy naming. A young girl tells him that she has a troll character named Teacup. He scoffs and explains that there are rules for naming trolls, and that a troll mother would never name a child "Teacup;" only a little girl would.
It's as if writers Jared and Jerusha Hess anticipated what the critics would say about Gentlemen Broncos, namely that the film disobeys the conventions of movie storytelling in favor of their own strange and gleeful energy. Gentlmen Broncos is a movie well aware of what it doesn't do, of what rules it doesn't follow, but it doesn't care. It's naming its troll Teacup whether you like it or not.
That said, Gentlemen Broncos isn't Napoleon Dynamite. Where the latter is a character study of an unusual protagonist, the former is, by contrast, a highly metafictional narrative about creativity and adaptation, with a hero, a villain, and a solid resolution.
Benjamin Purvis, a teenager nominally homeschooled by his loving but distracted mother (an appropriately out-of-it Jennifer Coolidge), spends most of his days writing pulpy science fiction stories. When he attends a writing conference keynoted by Chevalier, his favorite writer, Ben's latest endeavor, a wild tale called Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years falls into the hands of two conference attendees. One is Tabatha Jenkins, a fellow homeschooler who quickly elbows her way into Ben's life. Where Ben is quiet and shy to the point that he doesn't like people reading his stories, Tabatha is brazen, projecting a strange, confident energy. She is utterly without shame, but also unafraid of doing or embracing things that could be perceived as weird, and her remarkable joie de vivre makes her oddness charismatic where it should be off-putting.
The other person who happens upon Yeast Lords is Chevalier himself. Chevalier, with an endless collection of leather jackets and surgically attached to his Bluetooth ear piece, long ago won legions of fans with his series about harpies who shoot lasers from their breasts. It's easy to see Chevalier as a parody of the self-celebrating author (something Clement does with pitch perfection), especially when he presents a slideshow of the forty-some odd pieces of cover art he drew for his first novel. But even as we're laughing at the absurd harpy folk art, there's something deeper underneath. Chevalier was once an excited dreamer who compulsively doodled his bizarre fantasies; now he believes there are rules for naming trolls and his creativity has suffered. He simply can't recapture that crazy imaginative energy he once had, although he can certainly recognize it when he reads Yeast Lords.
Tabatha and Chevalier both want to adapt Yeast Lords, though each does it in a sort of underhanded way, and Ben's original vision gets poked and prodded into new shapes. Interspersed with the main narrative are scenes from Yeast Lords itself, with Sam Rockwell playing the story's shaggy-haired hero, Bronco. These scenes are crammed with all the strange ideas that swarm through Ben's brain: stolen testicles, cyclops turret men, rocket-powered battle stags, and yeast that gives you superpowers. These scenes are pure, straightforward fun, but they also show us first-hand Ben's own vision for Yeast Lords. As Chevalier takes over the story, we see how he changes and bastardizes Ben's original ideas, with Rockwell playing a very different version of Bronco. And as Tabatha and her friends adapt Yeast Lords as an amateur movie, we can experience the same disappointment Ben feels, that the characters and special effects never quite live up to the version in his head.
Gentlemen Broncos has been accused of asking audiences to laugh at the very characters it claims to celebrate: the weirdoes and misfits. And yes, it's easy to laugh at Ben's mother, who makes popcorn balls for every occasion and designs nightgowns that could double as space opera costumes, and Lonnie, Tabatha's lip-smacking filmmaker friend who invites less than flattering comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite. But the Hesses are, in fact, asking you to be a little repulsed by these characters and then look deeper, to see if they know something we don't. Yes, they may not fit into normal society, they may have values that differ from ours, they may make ugly nightgowns and crappy movies, but they're having fun. They're trying to live their lives on their own terms and be creative and pursue their wildest, wackiest ideas. Gentlemen Broncos may invite you to laugh at their foibles and their quirks, but it also invites you to go home, pick up your sketchbook, your camera, or that novel you're working on, and create something as great, as strange, and as utterly your own as Yeast Lords.