Arts

Buzzsaw

In ‘American Crime,’ an honest portrayal of gay teens in crisis

Connor Jessup brings realistic intensity to his role on “American Crime.’’
Ryan Green/ABC
Connor Jessup brings realistic intensity to his role on “American Crime.’’

I’ve had some complaints about “American Crime,” the ABC anthology series from John Ridley, the screenwriter of “12 Years a Slave.” Sometimes it’s too distractingly artsy for its own good, with ponderous facial close-ups that put you in mind of an E! pimple-cam, and editing that makes you wonder if your screen has the hiccups. The show is important drama, as each season it portrays the aftermath of a violent crime with an eye to race, gender, class, and sexual orientation, but “American Crime” sometimes crosses the line into self-important drama.

Right now I’m ready to check my complaints at the door, though. The show, which airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m., currently features a pair of astonishing performances by young actors that have made season two into something special and unique. The storyline involves gay teens, rape, homophobia, and institutional denial, and these two actors bring the kind of emotional honesty and authenticity to their roles that truly elevates drama. They ground the show in a realism that cuts through all the excessive cinematic footwork and tonal monotony.

As the central character, Taylor, who was raped at a party, Connor Jessup has been outstanding. What he does as Taylor is very good; what he doesn’t do — overact, spell out each stage of Taylor’s suffering — is even better. He plays Taylor with the kind of muffled, introverted tension that would never be confused with quiet. His teenager is miles away from the precocious, TV-ized teens we often find on the networks, who are almost preternaturally able to process their own feelings. Jessup lets Taylor be confused and stifled, particularly by his over-compensating single mother (Lili Taylor) who works selflessly to send him to a fancy private school. Jessup essentially carries the show without compromising Taylor’s youthful passivity and unformed personality.

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The story puts Taylor, who has a girlfriend and is in the closet, in a very difficult spot. In his fantasies, in his sexting with Joey Pollari’s Eric, he likes to think about being forced during sex. But during the pair’s encounter at the party, Eric apparently takes it too far. Also, Taylor believes that Eric drugged him into helplessness before the attack. Naturally, some think Taylor was “asking for it,” as is too often said about prostitutes or sexually aggressive women who’ve been raped. “Did you go there to have sex with him?” Taylor’s mother asks him. “I didn’t go there to get attacked,” he responds. And Taylor’s school, led by Felicity Huffman’s stony headmaster, is fighting to resolve the mess with as little damage to its reputation and its finances as possible, regardless of the damage to Taylor. Through all of this, Jessup gives us a kid unable to articulate the many painful issues that have taken over his life.

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Last week, Taylor’s confusion led him to steal a gun and shoot one of his tormentors. Raped, shamed, abandoned by friends, beaten by basketball players, prematurely pushed into being openly gay, angry with his mother for reporting the rape in the first place, he finally explodes. He makes a misguided grab for all the power he has lost. And Jessup makes all of this irrational internal logic work beautifully and heartbreakingly.

Meanwhile, Pollari has been similarly powerful as Eric, another gay teen whose life has been undone after the events at the party. Eric’s anger and his internalized homophobia make him less obviously sympathetic than Taylor. But then we see him surrounded by homophobic people, including family members and basketball team friends, and we see how they consistently affirm his self-loathing. He tries to kill himself after the rape hits the news and he gets outed, and his mother actually wishes he’d succeeded, saying, “We could’ve at least buried him as our son.”

Pollari gives us a teenager who, like Taylor, is still unclear about his own identity, particularly in terms of masculinity. He’s not a typical TV teen, Central Casting’s homophobe. It’s as if he’s being pulled under a giant wave of indistinguishable negative feelings, including loneliness and depression over his parents’ broken marriage, and he doesn’t know how to swim. He’s thrashing about, needy for acceptance and affection. Interestingly, when he meets up with strange men, he doesn’t want to have sex so much as make out. He’s a little more self-aware than Taylor, but Pollari nonetheless keeps Eric in a reactive state, lurching from conflict to conflict without understanding why.

Some of the actors on “American Crime” are a bit obvious and relentless about their characters’ agendas. But Pollari conveys Eric’s erratic soul with pure feeling. He and Jessup let Eric and Taylor exist fully in the gray areas, far outside of TV’s expectations.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.