BFI Flare 2024: Riley (2023)

High school football star Dakota Riley is winning on the playing field but secretly is grappling with his burgeoning sexuality which threatens to derail his life in writer-director Benjamin Howard’s autobiographical coming-of-age drama Riley.

Being expected to be someone

by Chris Drew


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Dakota Riley (Jake Holley, Malibu Crush) is making a name for himself in high school football, following in the footsteps of his father and on track for a successful college football career.

On the surface Riley’s life is great but inside his struggle to process his growing feelings of homosexuality starts to impact multiple relationships, at school and at home.

Riley has to navigate the testosterone-fuelled changing rooms, homophobia towards classmates on top of his own expectations of himself and those of his father Carson (Rib Hillis, Castaways), who is both the team coach and a former pro player. (Interestingly Riley’s mother is a little-seen religious cipher, largely used to say grace before meals at the dinner table.)

Best friend, and current house guest, Jaeden (Colin McCalla, The Prom) – handsome and muscled – is a constant companion and the pair’s shirtless workouts and night-time chats veer from ‘bro’-like behaviour to the edge of something more.

Riley tentatively attempts a relationship with Skylar (Riley Quinn Scott, Remy & Arletta) where her attempts to become physical understandably go awry as we see Riley thinking of Jaeden.

Out classmate Liam (Connor Storrie, Headless Horseman) is paired with Riley for a project and senses his issues, piecing together his anonymous online profile. An encounter between the pair escalates, leading to a desperate Riley thinking Liam will reveal his secret life to Skylar.

In the opening scene we meet Riley nervously going to a hook-up at the home of an older man (JB Waterman, Dangerous Snow Day) and this encounter is cut back to throughout the film. As this meeting progresses, Riley is gradually given meaningful advice about the choices he faces and how those in his life may react.

In his directorial feature debut, expanded from his short Rendezvous, Howard uses his own real-life experience to great effect, which brings the film a real sense of authenticity.

There are some beautiful shots of the San Diego skyline at early morning and as the evening sun drops, but possibly the story could have used more of Riley in football action.

In the lead, Holley (having also played the role in the original short) effectively nails the emotion and confusion of Riley’s internal struggle. The young cast vibe nicely together and have realistic chemistry which is enjoyable to watch.

The film ends with Riley movingly taking the first significant steps towards self-acceptance and becoming his authentic self, leaving hope his future without laying out his life events.

Riley is a fine entry in the cannon of valuable LGBTQIA+ stories.

Riley has its European premiere at the 2024 BFI Flare Festival on 16 and 17 March 2024, with writer/director Benjamin Howard, lead actor Jake Holley, and cinematographer Michael Elias Thomas in attendance. Film info: Riley is represented internationally by Matt Johnstone Publicity (Los Angeles | Zürich).

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