Remember those heady days of higher learning — when you were immortal, your future was ablaze with fame, and nobody else in the world had discovered the true glories of sex yet (though you knew everyone in the world would soon discover your own true genius)? If so, you might have flashes of recognition while watching “Kill Your Darlings” — followed, probably, by pangs of acute embarrassment.
That’s not a criticism of the movie. That’s acknowledgment that it’s willing to dive into the passionate, desperate no-man’s-land between adolescence and adulthood. Only, this landscape includes some big literary tourist spots.
Our point-of-view comes via a young student named Allen, who comes to Columbia University from the tame wilds of New Jersey’s suburbs. He’s a nice, shy-ish, Jewish kid who is a little overwhelmed by the big city in 1943. It’s hard to see in him, at first: the front-and-center, howling artist he would come to be. His last name? Ginsberg.
One of the age-sensitive things writer/co-director John Krokidas captures well here is the burning, secret yearning of “forbidden” love which — as much as a depiction of the Beat Poets’ baby steps — is what “Darlings” is about. This is a coming-of-age and a coming-out story: We watch young Allen, in his pre-articulate years, allow his heart to be strung along by an unattainable, damaged dreamboat.
That’s Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), the nervous, glacially blue-eyed Columbia student who cracks his way into Allen’s awareness by declaiming a poem about male genitalia while standing on a Columbia library table. Yes, it’s as stupid a scene as it sounds. Yet it sums up the tipsy, grandiose overreach of Carr and his language-mad pals — who include Jack Kerouac (an amiable but unmemorable Jack Huston) and the older trust fund weirdo William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster, giving a spooky/funny impersonation).
Sometimes the movie seems to be going through a checklist of pre-hipster signifiers. Visit to a raucous Harlem nightclub in an altered state? Check. Domestic fight scene between Kerouac and one of his girlfriend/wives (Elizabeth Olsen)? Check. Embarrassingly sincere reading of a poem by Allen to his new buddies as they drift under starlight in a stolen boat? Check. Even when Radcliffe, as Ginsberg, is naked and gamely locking his hairy legs around the waist of his first gay lover, “Darlings” never completely shakes off a smell of waxworks.
Even so, its awkwardness and earnestness are faces of the same coin. And its mix of sex, drugs and death achieves moments of intoxication. The main, fact-based storyline is a creepy doozy. The source of Lucien “Lu” Carr’s nervousness has a name: David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall, silkily sleazy), an older man who’s always showing up at the smoky parties and dive bars where Carr hangs out. And he’s always picking feuds with Allen, like a teenage girl cat-fighting over the school quarterback.
“Why don’t you like me?” Allen rightly asks. It’s because Kammerer, also rightly, guesses that the young man’s obsession with Carr is strong enough to rival his own. This leads to a crime that’s a fascinating Beat footnote, a murder around which the emotions and motivations are interestingly complex. They ring true in the movie because they have the sad, conflicted, unresolved messiness of real life. Whatever actually happened that night, the scandal marked the end (by his express choice) of Carr’s association with his writer friends and the literary scene; he’s best known now as the father of the guy who wrote “The Alienist.”
Featuring adroit supporting turns from Jennifer Jason Leigh, David Cross and Kyra Sedgwick, “Kill Your Darlings” may make you less nostalgic for the sights and sounds of mid-20th-century America than for an era just two decades ago. It recalls the flowering of what some called the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s — and the emergence of many other, less gay independent films made in that time. A lot of the movies then were good-not-great, but were made with a mix of intelligence and edge that no one seems to want to spend money on in this Marvel movie-saturated movie time. For that reason alone, “Darlings” is a welcome trip to the past.
“Kill Your Darlings.” With Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall. Directed by John Krokidas. Rated R. 104 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.