Reel Affirmations runs Thursday, Oct. 19 to Sunday, Oct. 22, with all screenings at GALA Hispanic’s Tivoli Theatre, 1333 14th St. NW. Single tickets are $12. Festival Passes range from $30 to $325 and are available, along with a full schedule of films, at reelaffirmations.org.
Thursday, Oct. 19
Jennifer Reeder’s dramedy feels incredibly current. As America divides itself across racial and cultural lines, there’s something refreshing about a diverse, multicultural, immigrant-centric narrative that is more relevant and necessary than ever.
Unfortunately, Signature Move largely fails to meet expectations. It centers on thirtysomething lawyer Zaynab (Fawzia Mirza), a Pakistani-American Muslim who lives with her overbearing but well-intentioned mother Parveen (Shabana Azmi). Addicted to Middle Eastern and South Asian soap operas, Parveen spends her days intermittently lost in love stories and peering out of the windows with binoculars to scope out potential husbands for her daughter.
But Zaynab is hiding a secret — and you can probably guess what it is. While at a gay bar day-drinking and working on a case, she meets Alma (Sari Sanchez). The women have more than a few things in common: First-generation Americans, living with their mothers (both of whom have lost their husbands), and still steeped in their respective cultures. Alma is Zaynab’s polar opposite: She’s outgoing, vivacious, unashamedly sexual, and above all else open about her sexuality with her family.
That dichotomy sets into motion Signature Move‘s events, but they move at uneven pace. It is simultaneously rushed — Zaynab and Alma’s relationship goes from zero to sixty in about four frames — and unbearably slow — there’s an entire scene devoted to Zaynab leafing through various fabrics that should have never left the editing room. Mirza co-wrote the script, and while it crackles in some spots, it fizzles in others, never quite delivering either sufficient comedy or enough drama.
Where Signature Move most often shines is in both women’s interactions with their mothers. Shabana Amzi steals the show as Zaynab’s mother, delivering a performance that edges to the precipice of overdone without ever crossing. She is a woman torn between her traditions, her conservative nature, and occasional flashes with American norms, such as trying on a vibrant shade of lipstick while Zaynab is out. Their conversations — about life, Zaynab’s father, Parveen’s desire for her to happy — are the main reason to see Signature Move, if only to get a glimpse at conversations it’s easy to believe are happening in similar homes across the country.
Sanchez also shines most when she’s with her mother Rosa, vibrantly portrayed by Charin Alvarez. Their warm, open relationship is a constant counterpoint to Zaynab and Parveen’s restrained conversations, something Zaynab herself acknowledges during the film’s biggest confrontation between the would-be lovers, as Zaynab tries to explain why she can’t tell her mother that she is gay. But here, again, we encounter a roadblock — and it falls at Mirza’s feet. While she can handle the more comedic aspects of the script, and she nails every scene with Azmi, she is less convincing in both her chemistry and her acting with Sanchez. A tense, heartfelt scene that should have cemented why these two should be together is instead lost in a weirdly joyous expression on Zaynab’s face, as Mirza seems to struggle with how her character should be feeling in the moment. It isn’t helped by Sanchez giving everything in her emotional wheelhouse opposite her.
However, Signature Move‘s biggest issue is one of length — there’s an entire wrestling subplot, with a charming performance from Audrey Francis as Zaynab’s friend/wrestling coach Jayde, that really offers little and distracts more than anything. What we’re left with is an 80-minute film that feels both weighed down with baggage and yet also curiously empty. And that’s a shame, as underneath it all there’s a powerful, resonant, incredibly relevant 30-minute short film just waiting to be edited. Instead, what we’re left with is a ho-hum feature.
Signature Move isn’t without its merits — indeed, it’s worth watching for Zaynab and Parveen’s relationship alone. But that is also it’s biggest fault. Why care about Zaynab and Alma, when the best chemistry and the tensest drama happens when it’s just Zaynab, her mother, and the expectations of a culture she no longer truly identifies with. —Rhuaridh Marr
God’s Own Country
GOD’S OWN COUNTRY
Thursday, Oct. 19
When we first meet Johnny Saxby in Francis Lee’s breathtaking, emotionally redolent God’s Own Country, he’s violently retching up his previous night at the local pub, a scene, we soon learn, is all-too-familiar. “I’m not cleaning up your sick,” barks his steel-eyed grandmother, Diedre, as the glum 24-year-old starts his day of work on the family’s Yorkshire livestock farm. It’s not a glamorous life, and Johnny takes to his chores with a begrudging sullenness, constantly berated by his father Martin, incapacitated a few years back by a stroke. Everything rests on Johnny’s shoulders, like it or not. And he doesn’t like it.
Johnny’s anger is fueled by loneliness and regret. From his farm’s vast fields, he can see the lights of the town below. But he’s only part of it inasmuch as he can down a dozen or so pints. His friends have all moved away, to better things, leaving him trapped in a rural, mind-numbingly dull nightmare of sweeping manure, mending fences, and birthing lambs and calves.
His sexual encounters are confined to quick, coarse, decidedly unsafe spit fucks with a young, local auctioneer. After one such occasion, the boy asks if Johnny would like to get a beer sometime, an attempt to humanize an otherwise unappealing, feral sexual encounter, and Johnny merely scoffs. Johnny, of course, is an animal — instinctive, primal — waiting to be domesticated.
Promise arrives in the form of Gheorghe, a migrant Romanian worker hired by Martin to help with lambing season. Johnny is at first desultory to the swarthy young man, calling him a gypsy, but the attraction is evident. After the pair spend a few nights in a remote stone shelter, tending to the newborn lambs, a transformation occurs. Their first encounter is eruptive, messy, passionate, stark, but it soon gives way to something more, as Gheorghe literally teaches Johnny the meaning of tenderness, as well as the power of a first kiss.
The remainder of Lee’s movie follows very familiar tropes, but it does so in such a natural, beguiling way, you barely notice. Everything about God’s Own Country feels fresh, as if this were the first gay romance ever made. If it doesn’t put your heart in your throat, you’re likely dead.
Lee infuses his film with a grim and gritty authenticity. Where an estimable movie like Brokeback Mountain, with which God’s Own Country shares massively similar DNA, generated its emotions through poise and polish, Lee’s film aims for the jugular of true intimacy. It helps that there are no recognizable stars — apart from Ian Hart, magnificent as the stroke-addled Martin. The movie is as much about the brutal, punishing, often grisly life of farming as it is about two men finding romance. It’s about the realization that while we can be our own self-imposed islands, surrounded by resentment and anger, things are so much better when you have someone making you morning eggs and fresh cheese.
As Johnny and Gheorghe, Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu are equally phenomenal, matching each other in both ferocity and a familiar, playful casualness. O’Connor is particularly good in conveying Johnny’s primordial nature, while Secareanu plays Gheorghe with steady, serene, knowing calm and compassion. The actors bring the authenticity of first love to the screen in a way that is exceedingly rare for any movie, Hollywood or otherwise. Tender, heartbreaking, emotionally shattering and satisfying, it is the movie that Brokeback Mountain wishes it could have been.
The program opens with a screening of Tyler Byrnes’ Breakfast (FOUR TRIANGLES), a delightfully strange look at one gay man’s eating disorder — and the harmful way it’s impacted his relationship — depicted through a surreal lens that calls to mind the works of David Lynch and David Cronenberg. Accentuated with stop-motion animation using simple household items like aluminum foil and rubber tubing, the film transcends reality into something unsettling and horrific. An engaging and unnerving ten minutes. —Randy Shulman
Friday, Oct. 20
There’s something mesmerizing about The Feels. Centered on the premise of a lesbian bachelorette weekend, where one of the brides reveals that she’s never actually had an orgasm, what is initially established as a fun comedy quickly gives way to a dramatic, awkward, revelatory, sensual, and completely engrossing documentary into the lives of seven compelling people in a lodge in Northern California.
Director Jenée LaMarque and co-writer Lauren Parks, both of whom also co-star, have crafted a film that frequently jumps between laugh-out loud humor and deathly silent drama. The seven characters bicker, talk over one another, move through the scene, break off into splinter groups and otherwise interact in a way that feels simultaneously directed and yet also real. That parts of the film were improvised comes as no surprise, as it lends each scene a spontaneity that is incredibly refreshing — when one character asks another to clarify what they said, was it scripted, or did they genuinely just not hear amid the rabble of the conversations and actions occurring onscreen?
If it sounds like a jumbled mess, it’s not. Far from it. And it’s anchored in seven distinct performances, chiefly in its leads, the brides-to-be Andi (Constance Wu, Fresh Off the Boat) and Lu (Angela Trimbur). After the group gets drunk, high, and ends up in a local bar, Lu slurringly tells everyone that she’s never had an orgasm — and no one is more shocked than Andi. What follows is an examination, both within the relationship and throughout the friendship group, of whether the couple should be together, what other lies remain unspoken, and why not “getting there” is a potential deal-breaker.
It helps that, while each flawed in their own way, all of the characters are likeable. Wu is masterful as the dominant Andi, who quickly descends into a crisis of confidence as she wonders whether she’s to blame. Trimbur captures every moment of Lu’s anguish, both in coming to terms with everyone knowing about her most intimate secret, and dealing with the new reality she has created.
LaMarque is a strong presence as Nikki, Lu’s sister, who enters the party late after a fight with her now-separated husband. Painted as the wronged party, Nikki’s layers are slowly unpicked as she reconnects with her sister, and LaMarque handles it with aplomb. The others, too, are engaging, from Parks’ vibrant but emotionally frail Vivien, who yearns for attention for all the wrong reasons, to Kárin (Kárin Tatoyan), a singer who’s taking a break to reconnect with old friends — and occasionally burst into beautiful song.
Rounding out the group, there’s Josh (Josh Fadem), Andi’s sex and woman-crazed best friend who just can’t keep it in his pants — something that fuels the second day’s drama over the course of the weekend. Finally, there’s arguably the film’s most polarizing character, perhaps after the weird, borderline creepy Josh. Regular Helen, as she’s known, is weird, has zero concept of personal boundaries, and says whatever’s on her mind. Ever Mainard gives it her all, delivering some of the film’s most random, funniest lines, but her penchant for scene-stealing, particularly in more improvised sections, teeters dangerously close to obnoxious.
LaMarque handles the film confidently, keeping things moving as the friends fight, laugh, converse, and otherwise try to just get through the rest of the weekend without imploding. The film’s transitions between humor and drama aren’t the smoothest, but if you can get past the tonal shifts, and the weird on-camera interviews about sex, orgasms and sexual history with each character that are randomly interspersed throughout the narrative with zero context, there’s a lot to like here. The Feels isn’t perfect, but the way it captures the dynamics of a group, its imperfections, its humors, its emotions, certainly comes close. —RM
I Dream in Another Language
I DREAM IN ANOTHER LANGUAGE
Friday, October 20
While it is easy enough to mourn the loss of a language in the abstract, Ernesto Contreras deals with the process of its disappearance on an intimate, human scale in I Dream In Another Language. Although Contreras was inspired in part by his grandmother, a native speaker of a Zapotec language, he opts not to use one of the many existing indigenous languages of Mexico. Instead, out of respect and deference to the speakers of these languages, he uses an invented one — Zikril.
Contreras deals beautifully with the power of language to shape reality, in part by endowing Zikril with qualities that we might call supernatural. In one haunting scene early on, Jacinta takes Martin out into the jungle and speaks to the local wildlife in Zikril, who respond back. Save for one scene near the very end, he provides no subtitles, adding much to the sense that it is inaccessible to all but its dwindling number of speakers.
The audience encounters Zikril from the perspective of Martin, a young, earnest, good-looking, cosmopolitan linguist who has set out to catalogue as many of Mexico’s endangered languages as possible before they disappear. Zikril, we quickly learn, poses a unique challenge, in that the two remaining speakers refuse to have anything to do with one another following a decades-long feud. Complicating matters, Isauro, the more good-natured of the two, speaks only Zikril, leaving Martin without a reliable translator after the abrupt death of his initial contact, Jacinta. Winning over the other speaker, the cranky and hot-tempered Evaristo, becomes his project. He finds an ally and perhaps inevitably, a love interest in Evaristo’s granddaughter Lluvia, who hosts an English language program on a local radio station, tidily representing the encroachment of the global languages displacing local dialects worldwide.
Still, for a film about the communicative power of language and its ability to bind people together, the relationships between characters are less well-realized. Evaristo’s grudge is first explained as a fight over Lluvia’s grandmother, but Martin correctly feels that this alone cannot explain why the two men haven’t spoken in 50 years. Lluvia eventually reveals that Isauro and Evaristo’s relationship was deeper and more complicated than either of them would let on, although the explanations given in flashbacks leave this explanation as unsatisfying as the initial one.
Ultimately, the hollow relationships on screen do little to detract from the film’s beauty, although they are an unfortunate distraction in an otherwise powerful work. —Sean Maunier
Saturday, Oct. 20
The sensitive, effeminate Ulysses is altogether lost, struggling in a repressive environment in the Bronx. That is, until the teenager gets up the nerve to seek out fellow LGBTQ youth in the West Village, where a local church provides meals and a safe space every Saturday evening. Eventually, Ulysses becomes a belle of the Ball.
Although it’s hardly an original tale, the feature-length directorial debut from writer/producer Damon Cardasis is tender, charming, and touching. It sheds light on the plight of homeless LGBTQ youth, who are, as depicted in the film, predominantly black and brown and gender-nonconforming — and unconscionably rejected by their families because of it.
Saturday Church further distinguishes itself in the coming out genre by incorporating fantasy and musical numbers into the mix. It has been referred to as a cross between Moonlight and La La Land, though it’s neither as bold and evocative as Moonlight, nor as melodic and stylish as La La Land. Instead, it registers as a more polished after-school TV special, or perhaps an extended episode of Glee.
Unfortunately, neither Nathan Larson’s music nor Hillary Spera’s choreography are anything to sing and dance about. Although an inspiring concept, the fantasy and musical interludes are generally poorly executed and feel forced. Too often, the caliber of acting also detracts from the story, veering towards camp. However much MJ Rodriguez may identify with transgender character Ebony, for instance, she’s merely going through the motions, posing and singing — nicely, it should be noted — but not adding realistic, colorful dimension to a rather stereotypical part.
On the other hand, you root for the film’s lead character from the get-go, particularly because of newcomer Luka Kain’s entirely convincing portrayal. This quiet, bullied, misunderstood kid nonetheless has an inner resolve that cannot be repressed, and with charm to spare. It’s too bad we don’t get to see the process of Ulysses’ full immersion into the ball, or that we only get to see ball culture from a distance or in the background.
It helps that everything is looking up by film’s conclusion. And Kain strikes just the right pose. –Doug Rule
Girl Shorts: A Circle of Diamonds
FUN IN GIRLS SHORTS
Saturday, October 21
There’s a lot to like in Saturday’s “Girls Shorts” package of films. Unfortunately, opener Java () isn’t one of them. Set in a coffee shop, unsurprisingly, Jet gets her latte and then sits down at a table across from “Diana,” where she proceeds to sketch her until “Diana” wakes up from whatever trance she’s in and asks what she is doing. Jet reveals she’s been doing so for five years and that she has no idea who “Diana” is. Unfortunately, writer-director Giovanna Chesler fails to give an answer, and you’ll be so confused you won’t care.
Things pick up dramatically with Tits (), a crudely animated but wholly engrossing monologue from Louisa Bertman about breasts, bras, and her personal journey from birth to adulthood. It’s frantic, heartfelt, and thoroughly engaging, and ends on an incredible reveal. It’s followed by Tincture (), which is every bit as oblique as Java, but far more compelling (not to mention better acted). It follows Karine (Andria B Langston) and Jayne (Laurie Goodman) as they drive to an unspecified location to commemorate the death of Camille (Morgan Mylesha Ramey). Except Camille is still here, haunting Karine, caressing her, infecting her mind like the tinctures she homebrews. It’s weird, unexplained, and engrossing.
Take a tissue on Saturday, as Counting () — though entirely predictable in its outcome — will wreck you. It opens in 1951, as Milly (Kenzie Seibert) and Violet (Carolyn Reynolds) plan their future together. Desperate to one day marry, Milly has as plan: each contributes a penny per day to a fund, which, by the time they’re 90, will be sufficient to afford the wedding they hope will be legal by then. The film then jumps to 2015, as the radio announces the Supreme Court’s ruling that same-sex marriage is legal across America. We won’t spoil the ending, but Counting is an impactful reminder of just how long some in our community waited for equality.
Potentially one of the most compelling shorts in this package, not least for the high standard of acting from its two leads, Us () is a simple concept that produces 15 minutes of engrossing drama. Gay/straight best friends Becca (Amanda Céline Miller) and Tracy (Giulia Davis) live together, commute together, and joke about one another’s love lives together. Tracy wants Becca to find someone, so pushes her to ask out fellow teacher Mallory (Christine Weatherup). But when Mallory enters their home, the dynamic changes. Writer-director Jessica Fuh captures every moment of tension, as Tracy questions her true feelings for Becca, and the pair must come to terms with the new reality of their relationship.
Most of us have had some sort of fleeting romance narrative — usually while on vacation. You meet a stranger, sparks begin to fly, and though you know it can’t go anywhere, you want it nonetheless. That, in a nutshell, is Encuentro (), Florencia Manovil’s short about Claudia (Stephanie Castillo) meeting enchanting Venezuelan journalist Isabel (Maria F. Leon) in her local bar. The chemistry between them crackles as Isabel tests Claudia’s grasp of Spanish, asks about her parents’ heritage in Nicaragua, and the pair grapple with the immigration narrative in Isabel’s article — until Isabel must eventually leave with her colleague. With a strong script and two engaging performances, Encuentro is just like Isabel: bright, mesmerizing, and gone all too soon.
The Visit ( ) promises a lot from the get-go. Its strong production values and teasing narrative offer numerous questions, as Emily (Kay Aston) receives a birthday card from the mysterious Andi (Chelese Belmont). An email exchange later, and Emily is on a flight to L.A. to reconnect with Andi, neither she nor the audience sure of what’s about to happen. It’s not the biggest surprise that the women have a past, as they slowly rekindle their feelings over alcohol and food. Some clunky dialogue and an occasionally flat performance from Belmont, especially opposite the dynamic Aston, don’t derail what remains a compelling, contained exploration of love not quite lost.
Perhaps it’s because Tits has better production, but Butch Coyolxauhqui (), the second animated short in this package, is a notably rougher affair. Still, that doesn’t distract from its compelling narrative, as Karleen Pendleton Jiménez narrates her life as she came to terms with her butch, queer self, eventually framed in the context of the Aztec goddess. Sure, it’s amateurish, but Jiménez’s story is compelling nonetheless. –RM
A Circle of Diamonds and Mai also screen in this program, but were unavailable to review.
Boys Shorts: Alpha
FUN IN BOYS SHORTS
Saturday, October 21
Shorts are always a grab bag, but there are usually a few treasures to be found, and this year’s collection dedicated to boys has its fair share, starting with the the evocative Shala (). Set in a Brazilian orphanage, the eleven-minute film deals with gender roles — and the intolerance on display when people refuse to conform with socially assigned norms — with striking clarity. And it packs a brutal emotional punch that leaves you winded and wincing. Shala dovetails nicely into The Hares (), an Argentinean entry in which a young boy would rather congress with his sisters, allowing them to apply lipstick and rouge, rather than hunt with his father, a point driven home in the film’s climactic moment, featuring the haunting, indelible cries of a wounded, shrieking rabbit.
Dare and Truth () is a strongly performed revelation of short filmmaking, launching with a cluster of friends in an after-school clutch who taunt a gay classmate, in the process revealing something about one of their own. Filmed in black and white, cinema verite-style, the movie is a deliberate callback to Madonna’s Truth or Dare. Director Thomas Rivera Montes adds a coda that brings the movie’s point into focus, by using a simple visual trick that is as illuminating as it is inspired.
Alpha () is a fine example of a totally useless short. The movie seems to be nothing more than an excuse for director Benjamin-Shalom Rodriguez to film a sex scene between two men. Maybe there’s a point to what ensues next, but more than likely not. The production values are good (clearly, too much money was spent on it), and at least it’s over in 5 minutes, making it the perfect movie to take that quick bathroom break.
Just be back in time for Carleton Daniel’s alluring Monogamish (), a beautifully made, narratively complex story about a young poet in search of intimacy. The film features a terrific twist that crystallizes its theme about navigating a world of open relationships, but the movie goes well beyond its premise, incorporating memory play and wry humor (there’s a bit with a saxophone player that is just priceless). By the time an older character, spurned by a younger one, barks, “The least you can do is suck me off before you go,” the movie has made one of several points about navigating the world of gay dating and random hookups. Cruisers () takes a similar approach, but uses a more direct narrative path, recounting an awkward hookup between two young strangers. It starts in a public restroom and ends up on a gorgeous overlook, captured to perfection by cinematographer Justin Stark, but nicely drives home the point that some of us don’t want to connect beyond the physical, leaving those who do in a lonely ravine.
Courtney Fay Powell’s The Surf Report () is a dreadful mess, albeit a visually atmospheric one. When a surfer doesn’t return home to his boyfriend, and a body isn’t found, the question of did he just take off or did he drown is posited. Unfortunately, it’s posited by the surviving partner to an orange-haired psychic in a laughable scene that includes such gems as “Has it ever occurred to you that death is a construct?” and “Just look to the ocean…. With the Tarot, you tell your own fortune.”
For those who desire eye candy and an abundance of filmmaking pretension, Love the Way You’re Breaking () fits the bill with a Whitman’s Sampler of crotch and butt shots, and enough allusions to sex to make you feel as though you maybe, sorta, kinda just watched a soft-core porn. The film strives to be a clever recollection of a man’s relationships over a five year period, but it’s really nothing more than a lot of touching and pointless voiceovers, set in a stark white bedroom whose only visible adornment is a unicorn on the nightstand. It’s the kind of self-indulgent short film that really never needs to be witnessed by anybody, ever.
The program ends on a massive high-note with Something New (), a polished, well-written, engagingly performed comedy of errors in which a young gay man (the winning Ben Baur, who also wrote the 16-minute comedy) struggles with the idea of dating versus hookups. When his Grindr boyfriend suggests the two of them go out, he declines with “I don’t want to go on a date with a guy that I’m sleeping with.” The film culminates in a profoundly awkward evening in a restaurant, and if it’s a little more conventional than experimental, that’s fine. It works, magnificently. –RS
Stumped also screen in this program, but was unavailable for review.
Transgender/Genderqueer Shorts: Headspace
FUN IN TRANS/GENDERQUEER SHORTS
Sunday, October 22
Jake Graf is quickly becoming known for his short films featuring transgender characters and issues. The trans writer-director’s Headspace () is a powerful four-minute exploration of the everyday trials faced by transgender people, from changing at the gym, to using public toilets, to visiting the doctor, to walking past a potentially threatening situation. Told entirely through narration and featuring an all-trans cast, it’s a much needed reminder that life, though improving, is still a constant fight against ignorance, fear and a society imbalanced towards cisgender people. That Graf ends on a positive note is both confident and welcome, given the heart-stopping few minutes prior.
Elegance Bratton’s Walk for Me () is a tightly contained narrative, but boy does it resonate. Hassan (Aaliyah King) is a struggling teen living with his mother, Andrea (Yolonda Ross), who seeks comfort in the Ball culture of New York City. Under the guise of Paris Continental (Brenda Holder), Hassan finds freedom in becoming Hannah. But everything threatens to crash down around her when her mother discovers her identity. Bratton’s script, direction and 11-minute runtime leave no room for excess, instead building to a final confrontation between Andrea and Hannah that’s as emotional as it is cathartic.
Heart-wrenching, gripping, current, and necessary viewing for anyone living in a comfortable bubble, Right of Passage (), from Danni Xin and Emma Wheeler, documents the lives of three LGBTQ refugees — Ibrahim, Hamid, and Ali — who fled the Middle East and resettled in Germany. With the help of Rainbow Refugees Frankfurt, they are all coming to terms with their new reality, but the pain, the memories, the disconnect from home weighs on them. Twenty-one-year-old Ali longs to transition, but her mother wants her to marry a woman and have children. Ibrahim was thrown from a third-floor window in a hookup gone wrong in his home country. Hamid’s close friend in Afghanistan was raped and chopped up with an axe. It’s experiences that LGBTQ people in America need to get better acquainted with, to understand the struggles of others around the world. And perhaps, as we watch our rights eviscerated by Trump, take heed from Ibrahim’s comment on life back home: “The government has rendered us illegal.”
The other side of the coin from Right of Passage, Ellen Marie Lewis’ Finding Pride () follows the youth group Arcigay Genova in Italy, as they prepare for the 2016 Liguria Pride Festival. It’s a thin documentary, but it’s also a welcome moment of upbeat comradery in this shorts package.
The second film in a trilogy, and second in this package, from writer-director Jake Graf, Dusk () — somewhat appropriately — follows 2016’s Dawn. Here, the elderly Chris (Sue Moore) is reflecting on his life as a trans man, from his burgeoning self expression and the subsequent bullying he encountered, to his all-consuming relationship with Julie (Victoria Emslie). Beautifully shot and powerfully acted, especially by Elliott Sailors as twenty-something Chris, the 15-minute drama covers hate crimes, family rejection, the confusion of identity, and a number of other topics that remain as valid now as they were 50 years ago.
A glimpse into the lives and work of William Lloyd and Nikki Araguz Loyd, the trans activist who fought the Texas court systems to have her marriage to her previous husband recognized after his death. Will & Nicki () quickly becomes a bird’s-eye view at the everyday discrimination that transgender people still face in America, as Nikki is told she can’t be issued a new marriage license. Thankfully, justice prevails in Cressandra Thibodeaux’s rough but endearing documentary.
What would you do if you had one night to be completely, totally honest with someone? That’s the crux of Dimitris Toulias’ Sis (), as transwoman Steph (Rebecca Root) and her religious sister Fran (Maddy Myles) try to reconnect after she was ostracized from the family. Beautifully shot and powerfully acted, it’s sure to evoke reaction in anyone whose family has struggled to accept them. It’s a tense, dramatic ten minutes, though it could have benefitted from a longer runtime to further explore their changing dynamic.
If you’re averse to needles or piercings, turn away from Fuck Trump (). Everyone else should watch Lyle Kash’s film in horror and amazement, as two trans men push needles through their chests — one bearing scars from top surgery — until the blue tips spell out the film’s title. It’s weird, abstract, and slightly revolting, but also bold, powerful and fascinating. —RM
Sunday, October 22
Age-old questions of how far we ought to go for love and the extent to which we are willing to embrace our own identities are given new life in Apricot Groves, a film that explores them from the timely and much-needed perspective of an LGBTQ individual whose family ties spread across three national borders.
The film centers on Aram, a young Armenian-Iranian-American who has fallen in love with an Armenian woman he met while she was visiting LA and now seeks to marry her. Although Aram has grown up in the United States and lived there his entire adult life, he defers to cultural norms and returns to Armenia to formally ask her father for her hand. With the help of his brother, Arman, he visits a florist, a tailor and various shops to pick up the obligatory gifts before he pays his formal visit to his future father-in-law. Although initially somewhat hostile, the father warms to Aram and eventually grants his permission.
Despite the hectic schedule its characters find themselves on, Apricot Groves is a film that is in no such rush itself. Aram’s errands are far less important than the relationships between characters, portrayed masterfully by each of the film’s actors. Lingering shots and vistas of Yerevan and rural Armenia add to its almost meditative atmosphere and force us to appreciate the film at its own pace.
Director Pouria Heidary Oureh, who is himself Iranian-Armenian, approaches the cultural differences encountered by Aram with an insider’s sensitivity, avoiding outright condemning, celebrating, or mocking his prospective fiance’s family. Oureh’s subtlety and patience is apparent in the way he gradually lets his story unfold towards the climactic reveal at the Iranian border that is hinted at enough throughout the film that it can probably be pieced together without much difficulty, but nevertheless deserves to be experienced the way Oureh intended it.
Treading the complex relationship between family, identity and culture can be complicated at the best of times, and this film deserves much credit for the way it gets into Aram’s head and allows us to appreciate his own delicate negotiation of the relationships he must balance, and the worlds he finds himself caught between. —SM
Sunday, October 22
On IMDB, Trudie Styler — aka the wife of Sting — has 36 films credited to her as an actress, 30 as a producer, and three as a director. One of those is a short, the other a documentary, leaving Freak Show as her sole attempt to try on the narrative format for size.
It doesn’t fit.
It’s possible that, in the hands of a genuinely competent director, Freak Show — an adaption of the novel by former club l’enfant terrible James St. James, in which a young, flamboyant drag queen attempts to not fit in at his bigoted Southern high school by running for Prom Queen and, invariably, changes the hearts and minds of at least some of the students — might have been a powerful drama. That’s not the case here. Punctuated by a misbegotten, annoyingly delivered voice-over that refuses to let up, the movie isn’t merely a simple train wreck. It’s a hundred train wrecks, all on the same stretch of track.
Styler is fully to blame. If there’s directorial talent there, you’d need a nuclear-powered microscope to locate it. Her movie gets progressively worse with each passing of its 90 tedious minutes. You feel bad for her assembled talent, clearly all friends doing her a favor, including veterans Bette Midler, James Pine, and Celia Weston, and costume designer Colleen Atwood and legendary cinematographer Dante Spinotti (L.A. Confidential).
The narrative’s heart is in the right place, but Freak Show lacks a brain. Nuance is nowhere to be found — the film is structured out of deliberate, over-the-top camp moments (case in point: the film goes as far as to pointlessly replicate “The Last Supper” tableau in a key moment). Nothing about Freak Show feels natural, though there is one compelling scene where the lead character, Billy Bloom (played to the rafters and beyond by newcomer Alex Lawther), is horrifically gay bashed.
By the time former tennis pro John McEnroe shows up as a loud, obnoxious gym teacher, you feel like your brain has been strained past the point of no return, only to be proven wrong by the stunt casting of Laverne Cox, who proves that she needs a good director to keep her from sounding like she’s reading aloud to a room full of first graders.
All that said, since Freak Show is, regrettably, closing the Reel Affirmations festival, you probably should go and endure it. Consider the admission price a charitable donation to an extremely worthwhile and vibrant LGBTQ cultural cause. —RS
Find an archive of past Reel Affirmations reviews (2003-2016) online at metroweekly.com/reel-affirmations.