In his essay “C.O.G.” (“Child of God”), David Sedaris muses about a group of born-again Christians: “There seemed to be some correlation between devotion to God and a misguided zeal for marshmallows.”
Unfortunately, in the film adaptation of the same name, such wry observations are nowhere to be found. Screenwriter Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s C.O.G. contains no narration, only dialogue, which almost works with Glee‘s Jonathan Groff portraying the memoirist’s arrogant younger self. But without the humorist’s narrative overlay, C.O.G. feels jarringly a-Sedaris—mostly because it’s just not funny.
Young David has just finished grad school, so he boards a bus for rural Oregon, determined to find his inner Steinbeck. But the misty West is less idyllic than he’d hoped, and between an ex-con who mocks him for reading, a factory worker displaying dozens of dildos in a case and a caustic vet who hands out Jesus pamphlets and carves wall clocks shaped like Oregon, David whirls between crazies like a drunk with vertigo.
All is fodder for comedy in Sedaris’ dark, self-lacerating essay, but not in the film. Without the author’s voice, it becomes pure plot—and the plot of this little story is tragic. Dildo man tries to rape him. He escapes in a woman’s bathrobe. He moves in with the vet, attends a tearful altar call and is then disowned by the congregation he comes to love for being gay.
Coupled with a moody soundtrack and lingering shots of the Northwestern countryside, C.O.G. is a quiet meditation on many important themes: gender, sexuality, religion. And with his nuanced portrayal of a conflicted, lonely twenty-something, Groff lends even more gravity to the film. But there’s so much darkness, it’s hard not to miss that signature Sedaris tone—the one laughing when his own mother cruelly mocks his crippling OCD. It’s a voice that reminds you that you can laugh, too—and in fact, to stay sane, you must.
‘C.O.G.’ is playing through Sept. 26 at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, and opens Friday, Sept. 27 at Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol..