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In the wrong hands, Pariah could have easily settled as the sum of its parts. Its premise — a poignant look at a black teenage lesbian’s life in Brooklyn — seems like the tidy sort of coming-of-age story that’s ubiquitous on the festival circuit. Under director Dee Rees’s careful eye, however, this 2011 film is anything but. Pariah is something rare and stirring, an emotionally affective story that beautifully explores the social standards and barriers within its own fractured culture. The film follows Alike (the splendid Adepero Oduye), a 17-year-old high school student who can’t seem to fit in with traditional butch or femme crowds, frets about losing her virginity, and struggles to define herself. And that, ultimately, is the brilliance of Pariah. It turns an LGBT-friendly film into a story about identity. Your experience may not be as harrowing as Alike’s, but you still recognize its fundamental importance. You can still feel it. –CH
Prayers for Bobby
Based on the true-life story of Bobby Griffith, who committed suicide in 1983, Prayers for Bobby offers one of the most disturbing questions of any LGBT film – what can a mother do to cope with her son’s suicide when she is possibly to blame? This is the question viewers must ask of Mary Griffith (Sigourney Weaver) who, as a devout Christian, refuses to accept her son’s homosexuality. She does everything her religious conviction tells her to do to ”save” her son – and when it fails, and he tells her he wants to be gay, she rejects him. Following Bobby’s death, Mary tears herself apart as she struggles to deal with her son’s suicide, and the disbelief that he is destined for eternity in hell. Weaver turns in an incredible performance – the actress rises above the often evident constraints of the made-for-TV movie, and brings a level of compassion to a character it would be otherwise very easy to hate. She humanizes Griffith to the point where we see her not as a woman who rejected her son and contributed to his suicide, but instead a person who made a mistake based on religious conviction. It is this mistake that we watch Griffith atone for, and it is Weaver who makes that atonement such an emotionally draining, yet ultimately uplifting, experience. –RM
Prick Up Your Ears
Let’s name-drop, shall we? A screenplay by legendary English playwright Alan Bennett. Based on a book by John Lahr (son of Bert, The Cowardly Lion). A supporting cast that includes Vanessa Redgrave, Wallace Shawn and Julie Walters. And two stars at the center who were utterly sublime — Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina. In the coyly named Prick Up Your Ears, Oldman does an about-face from his starring debut a year earlier as Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy, and shows the world his extraordinary acting prowess. His turn as playwright Joe Orton, the young British farce-master whose works still bring roars to this day, is a performance steeped in the giddy joys personal self-discovery, both of one’s talent and sexuality. But it’s Molina’s superb, bracing portrayal of Kenneth Halliwell, Orton’s deeply jealous partner, that transports the film to a disturbing, tragically resonant realm. The facts are well-known — Halliwell killed Orton in a fit of rage and then committed suicide. And the way in which Frears — and Oldman and Molina — get there is movie storytelling at its finest. Prick Up Your Ears deals, tangentially, with issues pertinent to 1960s England, in which homosexuality was still considered an aberration. But it’s less a political drama than the true story of a same-sex relationship gone terribly, terribly wrong, tragically robbing the theater world of one of its greatest up-and-coming talents. –RS
Looking for simple plot and sympathetic characters? Keep looking. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a surreal fever-dream in the form of an avant-garde homoerotic tableau, Querelle, directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder from a novel by Jean Genet, is the film for you. Maybe you’ve seen the poster of the Brad Davis leaning against a sort of stone turret in the unmistakable form of a phallus. You might think you’re diving into some stylish porn. Instead, you get a meandering tale that has the sublime Jeanne Moreau, as brothel owner Lysiane, deadpanning a little tune, ”Each man kills the thing he loves,” dada-da, dada-da. You also get leathermen and construction workers, but none who can hold a candle to the breathtaking Davis, decked out as a simultaneously tough and adorable Belgian sailor, wife-beater undershirt meets pom-pom-topped sailor’s beret. While Davis got the spotlight in Midnight Express, wherein he declines some friendly man-on-man action, his Querelle is not at all inclined to decline. The tragic fiction breaks the fourth wall with heartbreaking reality: By the time of its release, Fassbinder had died of an overdose. Three years later, Davis learned he was infected with HIV, opting for assisted suicide in 1991. –WOB
When it comes to movies centered on transgender protagonists, there are a number of extremely well-executed documentaries. The fiction, however, has a tendency to get a little carried away. Often we get a trans woman lurking in the shadows, hoping to spy the children she fathered; or the trans woman harboring from her new lover the dark secret of having been born a bio boy. But Romeos is a fresh take. Lukas (Rick Okon), a 20-year-old trans man transitioning from female to male and fulfilling his year of ”civilian service,” is demanding of nothing more than his basic human rights. Conflict here, in part, centers on the seemingly mundane, like why the heck can’t Lukas be housed in the boys’ dorm? Yeah, there’s sort of a love story, but it’s not nearly as interesting as Lukas’s relationship with his childhood gal pal, also in the dorms, who is quick to call Lukas out whenever he’s acting like a dick. No one dies. The tears are minimal. It’s refreshing simply to watch Lukas navigate his landscape with curiosity as he surpasses his unique challenges, uplifting to see him demand to be treated with equality and respect, even if his particular cross to bear might seem particularly heavy at times. –WOB
When the great Alfred Hitchcock dealt with homosexuality, it was a tacit affair. Strangers on a Train (1951) notwithstanding, Rope is probably the closest he dove into the topic, even though it was akin to a wading pool. What gives Rope its gay frisson is the subject matter on which it’s based — a 1929 stage play that was, in turn, inspired by the notorious 1924 abduction and murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks by University of Chicago students and lovers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. Nothing in Rope implies that the protagonists — two bachelors who share an apartment — are in fact cavorting in a single bed, but the performances by John Dall and Farley Granger have uber-cultured personas that, at that time, would hint at such. James Stewart plays the professor who unravels the boys daring stunt of placing a body in the apartment during a dinner party. Rope is renowned for being shot in the illusion of a single take, a brave move that doesn’t really quite work, but makes for an interesting bit of cinematic eccentricity. The obvious companion piece is Tom Kalin’s Swoon, a blazing, stylish indie that deals far more explicitly with the gay relationship of the two young killers and is made all the more electrifying by Ellen Kuras’s startling, high-contrast black and white cinematography. Charged with malice and evil and, yes, even sorrow, Swoon is worlds apart from Rope‘s sedately cerebral yet sinister game of cat and mouse. –RS
“I don’t change people — I show them how to get closer to Jesus Christ and let them make their own way,” insists Gayle (Judith Light), facilitator of Genesis House, a “Christian recovery program specializing in sexual brokenness.” What’s broken, in Gayle’s mind, are the gay young men who come through the ministry’s doors. Yearning to be straight, they buy into the ministry’s religious hyperbole without question. Or do they? The notion is explored in Save Me, a pain-stoked drama that eschews sensationalism for rich, deeply felt performances and a narrative path that is ultimately as affirming as it is troubling — while some may learn to love themselves for who they are, there is always one more gay man trying to “be straight.” The narrative focuses on Mark (Chad Allen, giving a performance of marked clarity), and the feelings he stirs in Scott (Robert Gant) — and the problems their clandestine, pining glances cause for those around them, and Gayle in particular. The film gains power from its unique setting — few gay films are set in a ”reparative therapy” ministry — as well as a compelling, gripping performance from Light. Her face a dichotomy of concern and intolerance, Light brings this vexing woman to bracing life. Save Me doesn’t judge the reparative-therapy movement harshly (though it certainly doesn’t condone it), but rather director Robert Cray and writer Robert Desiderio try to bring understanding to its purpose. One might even call it enlightening. –RS
If you only watch one film on this list, let it be Shelter. No other film here can deliver a viewing experience so unassuming yet rewarding as this tale of growing up, coming out and experiencing first love on the sun-kissed beaches of California. Featuring beautiful cinematography, an appropriately angst-filled soundtrack, an attractive and talented cast and an effortlessly easy plot, it offers up the celluloid equivalent of an antidepressant. We follow Zach (Trevor Wright), an aspiring artist who lives with his sister in San Pedro, as he works a dead-end job and deals with life in a rut. Enter his best friend’s openly gay older brother Shaun (Brad Rowe), who returns home to Los Angeles and befriends Zach. Zach struggles with the feelings he develops for Shaun, attempting to conceal them from his family and girlfriend, and the impact his newfound emotions have on his life. The nervous, frustrated build-up to the pairing’s first sexual encounter is worth the price of admission alone. Shelter doesn’t have the deepest plot, or the most lyrical dialogue, nor will it blow you away with high production values or incredible set pieces. Instead, it strips away the layers that suffocate many LGBT films and offers a love story so elegantly simple it’s almost perfect. –RM
Were the World Mine
Were Shakespeare alive today, it would be amusing to see his reaction to the wonderful Were the World Mine. Tom Gustafson’s film focuses on gay teen Timothy (Tanner Cohen) and his life at an all-boy’s school as they prepare to stage a production of the bard’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Featuring an excellent ensemble, the fantasy musical sees Timothy gaining the power to force the inhabitants of his town to experience life in his shoes. Anyone who comes into contact with his love-in-idleness flower immediately falls in love with the next person of the same sex they see. Timothy uses it to gain love, exact revenge and offer much-needed education to his classmates, teachers and neighbors – though not without the consequences of altering the way a person loves. It’s a nice riff on gay-to-straight conversion, and comes with similar emotional pitfalls. With a catchy, upbeat soundtrack, Were The World Mine offers a tale of gay empowerment in the face of homophobia, wrapped up in song, costume and enchantment. It’s whimsical, endearing, and ultimately feel-good – a stark and welcome contrast to many of the darker films on our list. –RM
The Wise Kids
You don’t know who Stephen Cone is, do you? It’s a crime. His 2011 indie, The Wise Kids, is a coming-of-age sleeper showpiece. Cone, who wrote, directed and takes on the role of a closeted South Carolina pastor, captures the reality of three teens with immeasurable respect and heart. Whether it’s the pastor’s daughter (Molly Kunz) who is starting to question her faith, the boy (Tyler Ross) taking his first steps out of the closet, or the third of these three wise kids (Allison Torem) who insists that her God is an awesome God and that that’s just so awesome, Cone’s characters are stunningly genuine. And where the storyteller might be tempted to mock for comic relief, Cone refuses to pander. Instead of short cuts, Cone dives deeper still, giving supporting characters roles that allow each to steal some scene or another. The result is this quietly stunning film that everyone should see, a movie as simply satisfying as a glorious sunset, and equally as profound. –WOB
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