“I’m not homeless; I just don’t have a place to stay right now.”
Although Homme Less functions as a documentary, the experience of watching the film feels more like tuning in to a voyeuristic reality TV special about a has-been star. Mark Reay’s nomadic, exciting way of living lends itself well to Thomas Wirthensohn’s cinematic exploration of what it means for a creatively inclined, staunchly independent person to call New York home. Deeply entertaining and frank, the film never compels viewers to pity Reay, who revels in offering us a tour of his scrappy, persistent existence. Reay’s sense of pride pervades the film in a way that underscores the difference between the actual content of the film and what its title might suggest. This film definitely isn’t Homeless, and what forms the core of the film is Reay’s self-confidence, rather than any social or political commentary on homelessness in New York.
Moreover, the film almost entirely avoids touching on more generalized or politically charged ideas, as Reay’s experience is passively and purposely siloed. Given the effusive pride of our human subject, and lacking any voiceover narrative, it’s clear from the start that the film tells a very individualized story. It’s equally clear from the punny title that Wirthensohn has based his film’s concept in irony. We don’t expect to watch a film about a well-coiffed, middle-aged white man in which he doesn’t have a home and showers at his local YMCA, just as we don’t expect to watch a film about a random homeless man in which he discusses getting by with just enough money to pay for his cellphone bill, gym membership, and health insurance. This irony lends the film its simple strength, as neither Wirthensohn nor Reay ever openly tries to make viewers consider larger ideas wrought by the film—or consider the idea that director or star has insight on those ideas.
Homme Less doesn’t claim to reach beyond its narrative focus. Still, the subject matter does evoke complicated ideas about home, comfort, daily needs, and privilege that transcend Reay’s personal or storytelling status, during as well as after his homeless period. Wirthensohn’s refusal to engage those ideas in a deeper context feels slightly unambitious and, for many viewers, may make the film seem more pretentious than relatable. This is homelessness for the art-house crowd; the film makes Reay’s experience perfectly relatable for that particular crowd, without tiptoeing into seemingly foreign territory.
Wirthensohn’s camera follows Reay on a stealthy mission to show how things work—for him, for his day to day, in his New York. That Reay is a silver-haired, tall white man whose model looks and ability to pass in upper-middle-class society define his career becomes an obvious yet unexplored part of his reality. The film doesn’t excuse its focus on someone who, despite being part of the homeless population for a select (now past) period of time in New York City, has very little in common with a larger and much less fortunate population, with or without homes. Reay’s privilege makes his choice to expose his criminal activity to a filmmaker—literally showing where he’s set up his fort on a friend’s rooftop and how he makes sure not to let anyone know he’s there—less a dangerous option and more of a ticket to advancing his career.
What’s clear from the film is that Reay has choice. He doesn’t identify with “the homeless” at all, thinking of his situation as a desperate but deliberate way to save money. In his younger days, he wanted to travel the world, so he didn’t hesitate to accept $30,000 for leaving his longtime apartment in a gentrifying neighborhood. Stability seems never to have been a large part of this man’s life, and he’s always sought adventure. For him, this adventure presents few risks. He knows a guy whose roof he can stay on; he can afford to shower and store belongings at the Y and to brush his teeth with Poland Spring at a public men’s room.
But he doesn’t have to beg for money or to interact with anyone who isn’t more well off than he is. After refusing to stay in a hostel due to fear of spreading bed bugs, Reay made the choice to move around of his own accord, taking advantage of connections. He may not live with a roof over his head, but he spends the majority of his time schmoozing with fashion models and staying in shape for his gigs as a film extra. While the circumstances of his homelessness are unfortunate, they never feel permanent or accidental, as he never identifies himself by those circumstances. He identifies himself—and presents himself to everyone, friends and employers alike—as the same, as “us” and not “other,” as someone you’d never worry didn’t get along among the New York well-to-do just as well as everyone else.
A profound loneliness permeates Homme Less. One can’t help sympathizing with Reay, even though he also comes across as a deeply self-involved person whose comfort with dishonesty and criminality coalesce remarkably easily with his insistence on dressing only in posh suits and never revealing any sense of being disheveled. Reay survives through the convenience of his homelessness; he saves money, keeps up his looks, maintains connections, and manages to pay for just enough extravagance to keep him going. He bears no resemblance, and shows no relation, to the widespread and varied homeless population that isn’t featured in a two-year, one-on-one documentary exposé. That’s likely the point, and it allows the film to become fully animated and intriguing within its constraints. The underlying sadness of the film stems from the realization that, even though Reay is lucky not to have to be defined by his homelessness, he barely exists in any honest capacity beyond his constant clinging to a masked reality. Yet this also means that the film serves as yet another reminder of what it means to be a member of a certain population for whom temporary homelessness becomes fodder for an instantly watchable, narrow-lensed independent film, rather than a determination of the rest of one’s life. For those not represented by Reay’s single silhouette, the film may only emphasize their continued lack of an audience.