At one point during the making of doc, the director John Cameron Mitchell tries to explain the feel of his film to his actors, who will be having sex with each other on camera. It's like a Woody Allen movie, one of the good ones from the 70s. That's particularly true for the women in the film – a relationships counsellor who's never experienced an orgasm, and her friendship with a professionally and artistically unfulfilled dominatrix. In fact, the film's quest for jokes often slides into silliness – the kind of physical slapstick that you find in TV comedies. More unsettling is the second narrative strand, exploring James's depression and his relationship with his partner Jamie.
Both these strands emphasise the way sex is really another kind of communication. The couples in the beginning of the film have their wires crossed. The metaphor of sexual circuitry is continually referred to in the animated sequences that punctuate the film – sex is a connection in the motherboard of human bodies and minds that make up a city. The answer, the film seems to suggest, is to connect with more people. Shortbus is an artistic salon in Brooklin where free love holds sway. It's a power generator that tries to recharge the city's sexual batteries. The couples find a way to be together only after they learn to stray.
The film's sexual frankness is refreshing, and its borrowing from the optimism of the musical and romantic comedy diffuses some of the challenging subject matter at hand. Characters who are or have been sex workers struggle with a feeling of worthlessness. The actor playing James wanted to explore the feeling of growing up gay in a straight man's world, and how that can cut you off from people even when you're in a loving relationship. The complications that arise with polyamory are only vaguely touched on – some relationships are closer than others. But interestingly, most seem to pair off or reconcile at the end. The final sequence is of the ringleader of Shortbus (the performance artist and drag queen Justin Bond) playing the part of a Hymen for the modern age – consecrating a new, more liberated kind of marriage.