Metro Weekly

A Complete Guide to Reel Affirmations 26

From drama to comedy to everything in between, we have your definitive critic's guide to Washington's LGBTQ film festival

Reel Affirmations — Image by David Amoroso

Reel Affirmations runs Friday, Oct. 25 to Sunday, Oct. 27, with all screenings at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. Single tickets are $14. Festival Passes range from $40 to $200 and are available at www.reelaffirmations.org.

Queen of the Capital

QUEEN OF THE CAPITAL

Friday, Oct. 25, 5 p.m.

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From the very first minute of Queen of the Capital, it becomes clear that drag queen Muffy Blake Stephyns is dedicated to her craft. Viewers watch Muffy’s non-drag persona, Daniel Hays, pack his car full of suitcases, hat boxes, gown bags and wig mannequins, even pulling over to the side of the highway to re-fasten seat belts around the mannequin heads to secure them in place after they take a tumble, with Hays quipping that he’s encountered a “wig-tastrophe.”

Josh Davidsburg’s documentary gives viewers an abbreviated, behind-the-scenes look at Muffy’s 2014 campaign to become the Empress of the Imperial Court of Washington, D.C., a drag group whose mission is to raise money for local organizations and nonprofits. The 80-minute film provides glimpses into Muffy’s life, in and out of drag, with the bulk of it focusing on Muffy — and her fellow Court nominees, Milan Jaymes-Nicole and DP Diego-Dennis Carrington — performing at fundraisers, strutting on stage at Freddie’s Beach Bar, participating in the Walk to End HIV, and marching in the Capital Pride Parade while handing out flyers and handbills promoting Imperial Court events.

Viewers also see Hays working at the Department of Labor as a legislative analyst. They learn about his Southern Baptist upbringing in small-town Missouri and how he shaped Muffy’s personality, including her trademark high hair, to lampoon the stereotype of the Christian schoolmarm. The film examines the “chosen family” dynamic between Muffy and her drag mother, Shelby Jewel Stephyns. Viewers even learn about Shelby’s history, including her struggles with drug addiction and an abusive boyfriend who infected her with HIV. Yet despite the serious nature of some of the topics broached in the film, there is no big emotional climax or any raw, heart-wrenching moments guaranteed to leave viewers reaching for the tissue box.

To educate viewers about the history of drag — and serve as a device to change the film’s pacing — Davidsburg intersperses interviews with longtime Academy of Washington member Frank Taylor, a.k.a. Danielle Devereaux, and LGBTQ historian Mark Meinke. The two experts examine the history of drag; the interplay between the Imperial Court and the now-disbanded Academy of Washington, which served as a school for drag novices; the historical (and current) overlap between the drag world and the military; and the legacy of Washington’s now-deceased grand dame of drag, Mame Dennis, whom Muffy viewed as a mother-type figure.

Of course, no good story is complete without a conflict for a hero or heroine to overcome. In Muffy’s case, it’s her lifelong battle with epilepsy, which is brought to the forefront after she suffers six seizures and remains in a near-comatose state for nearly two days. Sidelined from the campaign trail and the stage, Muffy suffers severe depression and even begins to contemplate suicide, but it is her drag family, particularly Shelby, who lift her up and push her back into the spotlight just in time for the Empress election.

Queen of the Capital mixes entertainment with information, providing a primer for viewers, including many in the LGBTQ community, who are unfamiliar with the world of drag pageantry. By focusing on Muffy’s journey, viewers find an underdog-type heroine they’ll want to cheer for as she attempts to conquer the obstacles standing in between her and the crown she desires.

Queen of the Capital has a solid story arc that’s engaging and easy to follow, but you won’t leave changed or altered by the experience. If, however, you’re looking for a light-hearted narrative that will leave you in generally good spirits, this is the film for you. —John Riley

Sympathy Card

THE SYMPATHY CARD

Friday, Oct. 25, 7 p.m.

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Way too long for the content, Brendan Boogie’s comedy Sympathy Card needed a ruthless editor and way more of a point. If you’re going to make a movie about lesbian lovers that assumes a high degree of normalcy — as in being gay isn’t the plot-driver — then you really have to get on with it and tell a story.

The problem is that, as charmingly gauche as protagonist Josie is, with her funny nerdiness and her sweet urge to do right by her wife Emma, there just isn’t enough actual drama to keep one’s attention for a feature-length film. Sure, there’s a life-changing cancer, a bit of tame edge-play, and the tiniest hint of pathos in wanting the best for your lover, but there needs to be some powerful drivers and themes, even in a semi-dark comedy. The story is just too simplistic and the scenes arrive like vignettes, loosely strung together. This puts far too much of a burden on the actors to fill in the gaps by being adorable, comic or, in the case of Emma, “characterful.” In the end, it just feels like a whole lot of dithering and one too many set-ups for the film’s awkward-girl comedy.

Despite solid direction, it is surprising how many hallmarks of the amateur enterprise remain. There are slack moments when characters wait one too many beats before speaking. There is dialogue that no human would ever utter. There are contrived party scenes that have the feel of adults playing dress-up. And some acting in smaller roles would make an Oak tree blush.

At least the leads are committed and look ready for some variation of prime-time. As the awkward Josie, Nika Ezell Pappas breaks the mold of the usual rom-com heroine with her eclectic good-looks, and the more we see of her, the more compelling her gentle brand of sex appeal. She brings some of the better sketch-comedy humor and is convincing in the movie’s quieter moments. But her growth as a person is barely perceptible amid the constant “comic” questions Boogie has her ask. As ailing wife Emma, Petey Jay Gibson brings a certain Little Rascals-style roguery to her character and a face that draws the eye like a magnet. But there is little chemistry between these two women and Gibson’s coughing truly fails to convince almost as much as the idea that pushing your wife into a one-night-stand will somehow secure her future after you’re gone.

The program opens with Treacle (▼▼▼▽▽), a smoothly shot vignette of two footloose women whose drunken moment off-balances their close friendship. Director Rosie Westhoff shows a lot of mainstream chops, and there is a keen, almost Breaking Bad sense of their deserty drive to an Airbnb-style getaway, a freshness to the look and feel of their easy banter, and enough pull in the pacing to keep the film interesting. The only downsides here are not quite enough attention to the kind of details that get “okay” to “compelling” and a girlie-indie soundtrack that needs drop-kicking into oblivion. These women beg for close-ups to deliver more of their personalities, and their conversation — as the drunken night unfolds — needs to have been a lot more authentic as the alcohol loosened their tongues (literally and figuratively). Their gritty morning-after moment is well-paced and written, save for the failure to explore the interesting idea that being gay might have made a difference. And keeping it real: people steeped in post-coital hungover awkwardness are going to have a lot of trouble with eye-contact. —Kate Wingfield

Sell By

SELL BY

Friday, Oct. 25, 9 p.m.

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As debuts go, you could do a lot worse than Mike Doyle manages as the writer and director of Sell By. The actor, who does not appear in his film, but is familiar to anyone who has watched Law & Order: SVU or New Amsterdam with any regularity, has created a perfectly innocuous romantic comedy. It’s not painful to sit through, as so many of these films can be, yet nor is it very deep or interesting. Basically it goes nowhere and means nothing. It’s as though mediocre were an ideal to strive for when making a motion picture. Sell By more or less exists, in a pleasant, inoffensive fashion, as it moves through its various plot machinations — if you can actually call the thread that strings a group of various friends and their relationships a plot.

The movie delves into the romantic entanglements of six friends, the core of whom are a gay couple — Adam (Scott Evans) and Marklin (Augustus Prew). After five years together, the men trying to patch the cracks that have formed in their relationship and not really succeeding. Adam toils (oh, how he toils) as an artist who creates paintings for a much more famous artist (Patricia Clarkson, in a brief cameo that adds little), who then signs the pieces and sells them for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The underpinnings of the scam alone might have made for an interesting central story, but Doyle simply uses it as a means to crush Adam’s spirit, so that he can eventually have an “ah ha!” moment and come into his own. Marklin, meanwhile, makes a tidy fortune as an internet fashion influencer. The economic disparity in their relationship is addressed but only in the most shallow of terms. Still, you believe their relationship — the actors sell it well — with Prew, in particular, being a bit of a revelation. His performance is guileless, natural, believable. Watching him, you realize you want to see him in better films to see what he can truly accomplish.

Orbiting Adam and Marklin are Haley (Zoe Chao), who is fending off the sexual advances of the dimwitted 17-year-old boy she’s tutoring. When he threatens suicide by sticking his head in her oven, she declares, “Oh, no, that’s not gonna work! It’s electric.” Cammy (Michelle Buteau), meanwhile, is dating a homeless man and constantly questioning her self-worth, while Elizabeth (Kate Walsh) is going through a breakup with her boyfriend of 15 years. Buteau lights up every scene she’s in, while the veteran Walsh tends to flatten every moment (it’s a far cry from her delectable turn in Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy).

Doyle’s intentions feel honorable, but he doesn’t have the screenwriting skills to take a complex set of situations and characters and weave them together in a clever, artful way. Instead, he jumps into the shallow end of the pool and flails about happily, grabbing at every cliche he can find and tossing it about. You could chart the various storylines on a predictive flowchart and be 100% right.

And yet, while it may not be a Beautiful Thing or Gods and Monsters, Sell By is not unwatchable and makes for a nice, affirming way to open a festival that strives to focus on positive LGBTQ content. You enjoy yourself well enough while you’re sitting through it, and then forget about it the minute you leave the theater. —Randy Shulman

Ek Aasha

EK AASHA

Saturday, Oct. 26, 5:30 p.m.

In Hindi with English subtitles

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Somewhere between National Geographic documentary and earnest drama, Ek Aasha traces a portrait of a community perhaps entirely unknown to Western audiences. Kinnar, or Hijras as they are also known, are the Indian subcontinent’s third recognized gender, considered neither completely male or female, and comprising the transgender and intersex communities. Existing since antiquity, Kinnar have faced discrimination, criminalization, and being outcast to all-hijra communities, earning money by performing at ceremonies, conducting blessings, and resorting to sex work — though in recent years, the community successfully fought for legal recognition.

Indian-Australian filmmaker Mayur Katariya explores the Kinnar in his debut feature, which follows a transgender Indian girl, Aasha, as she comes to terms with her gender identity, her place in society, and her desire to grow up and become a teacher — a profession unthinkable to many in the hijra community, given the country’s negative perceptions of transgender people. In a bold step for inclusion, Katariya utilized a cast of non-actor transgender people to portray the film’s 11 main trans characters, including Disha Yadav as lead Aasha and Vijya Laxmi as best friend Sajni.

Unfortunately, this is also where Kataryia’s film stumbles. For non-actors, the cast offers some truly powerful moments, such as Aasha’s discussions with Nani Guru (Annu Akade), the leader of the local hijra community, about her future and her desires to break out of what society expects of her. And as Aasha, Yadav’s eyes are big, expressive windows into a woman struggling between her deepest desires and the confinements of a world still not quite ready to allow her to flourish. But these moments are undermined by the film’s rougher aspects, such as cast members looking directly into the camera, some ropey moments of acting, and dialogue that is occasionally simplistically written and delivered. The ending is a particularly egregious example of Katariya pontificating through his script and cast. And while Yadav carries the film on her shoulders she’s not immune to blank delivery, where proper training may have helped bring greater heft.

Katariya himself shows the limitations of a filmmaker still exploring their craft, particularly in the film’s two-hour runtime. Ek Aasha suffers from a preponderance of long, slow, quiet scenes — moments that, with a tighter edit, would land with greater impact, or at least help the film move through its story with greater fluidity. Not helping matters is a score whose simplicity often lends the feeling of an after school special, particularly during moments intended to highlight emotion, such as Aasha meeting paramour Abir for dinner.

However, these shortcomings can’t detract from what is still an incredibly interesting and challenging film. And where Katariya refuses to hold back is in showing the discrimination and pain that India’s trans community faces. Aasha is abandoned by her family and her potential lover as she pursues a seemingly distant dream, and every turn presents another door waiting to slam in her face — or the fist of a man eager to take advantage of her.

Should you watch Ek Aasha with no prior knowledge of India’s hijra community, the film absolutely succeeds in translating the sights, the sounds, the religion, and the culture into a tangible experience. Take Aasha’s induction into Nani Guru’s house, captured in slow motion, showcasing the glittering outfits, the rich foods, the storied ceremonies, and the joyous dancing as the women are finally allowed to look in a mirror and see their true selves reflected. Katariya succeeds in pulling the audience into this often unseen world in a way that, when it’s firing on all cylinders, utterly compels. —Rhuaridh Marr

Fabulous

FABULOUS

Saturday, Oct. 26, 8 p.m.

This film, a documentary about the professional transgender dancer Lasseindra Ninja, was not made available for screeing. It plays with the short, Batekoo, also not not made available for screening.

CRITIC’S PICK

DAUGHTERS OF FIRE

Saturday, Oct. 26, 9:15 p.m.

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Like a long dream, Albertina Carri’s Daughters of Fire is a road trip through rural vistas and female eroticism. Like most arthouse fare worth your time, if you leave your preconceived notions at the door and open yourself to the “journey,” you will find an enduring, even memorable presence. The narrative follows three women as they take a multi-day trip to the childhood home of one of them, deep in the countryside. Along the way, they meet strangers and old friends who share sexual experiences that often deliver their own interesting commentary.

Obliquely explored through a poetic voice-over while the women travel, is the question of what transcends “porn.” The answer, contemplated between interludes of long, beautifully framed shots of the bucolic surrounds and the intimate narrative of the trio’s sexual experiences with friends and strangers, seems to be something along the lines of self-determination and connection. If that sounds obtuse, that’s where some patience comes in. Carri is telling a story — the women acquire fellow travelers and stop briefly to rescue a woman from an abusive husband — but her voice is a mix of uneventful realism and the sensibility of dreams. If you can go with it, the overall effect is quietly absorbing.

Whatever your takeaway on the ultimate message, at face value, with its many scenes celebrating the lesbian experience of sex, Daughters of the Fire is also largely about sheer, uncensored enjoyment — for the characters but also the viewer. This is sex seen recalibrated back to an almost retro realism. It may be graphic, at brief times “pornographic,” but it completely escapes the pounding-hairless-body-makeup-acrobatics of the internet circus and, as such, is liberating to watch.

Quite powerfully, it shows and/or reminds, that there is/has always been another way to see sex depicted on a screen. Much of the power comes from Carri’s quiet, almost incidental, elaboration on the personalities of the women and for the viewer it becomes sex with someone you know — or perhaps can appreciate — which utterly changes the experience. And for those unfamiliar with lesbian sexuality, it’s a potent depiction of a sexual energy that exists as if in a parallel universe, not least because of the absence of the male gaze and aggression. Carri’s ability to capture this alone is remarkable.

The lead performances are largely professionally crafted, the smaller roles less so, but still compelling in their unassuming way. Mijal Katzowicz delivers her young swimmer with a polished swagger to her slightly prickly character, while the charismatically mesmerizing and understated Carolina Alamino Barthaburu, with a face and body of a Rubenesque grandeur, makes Hollywood starlets look like underfed, neurotic greyhounds by comparison. With expectations in check and minds open, this is imaginative and adventurous filmmaking. —Kate Wingfield

Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life

CRITIC’S PICK

JONATHAN AGASSI SAVED MY LIFE

Saturday, Oct. 26, 11 p.m.

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“I love sex,” says Israeli-born adult film star Jonathan Agassi, a husky hunk of a man with a burly, furry chest, gleaming, mischevious eyes, and a consistently bright, win-you-over smile. “I love shooting porn. I hope to do it for many, many years so you have the best jerk-off ever.”

If you’re a gay man who fast-forwards through the occasional adult title, Agassi — whose real name is Yonatan Langer and who is now retired from the industry — may be familiar to you. For years, he was one of the centerpieces of the Lucas Entertainment stable, appearing in hardcore fare like Men of Israel, Urine Fist Fest, Raw Double Penetration, and Urine Ibiza. Documentarian Tomer Heymann (the director behind the brilliant Paper Dolls) spent eight years trailing Agassi and his mother, Anna, capturing a rare portrait of a porn artist, watching him dive from the height of his career into a stunning crash and burn, due primarily, to an addictive affinity for the letters “T” and “G.”

Heymann’s coverage is astonishing, and the emotional honesty portrayed on screen is often abundantly uncomfortable (a scene between Agassi and his estranged father is a tour de force of awkward encounters). There are times when you sense a bit of cinematic manipulation occurring (certain moments feel staged), but to be fair, all documentary filmmakers take a point of view and are faced with the daunting challenge of constructing a viable narrative out of miles upon miles of footage. Heymann has a more than an ample gift for it — he’s the heir apparent to Frederick Wiseman.

It’s fortunate that Heymann has such a charismatic, absorbing central persona in Agassi. What’s truly remarkable is how much access Agassi allowed Heymann, to the point where we watch the actor huddled in a dirty hallway corner smoking meth or, in one deeply upsetting scene, undergoing a psychotic breakdown on GHB, prompting the filmmaker himself to rush into the frame and ensure that his subject, clearly now a friend, is okay. Although hard to watch, those two minutes serve as a testament to the dangers of drug abuse in a way that fictional depictions simply can’t convey.

The film does not shy away from the explicit nature of Agassi’s work — there is a lot of sex, though it never gets fully X-rated. Still, Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life may have, inch for inch, the most erect penises ever seen in 26 years of Reel Affirmations movies. Heymann takes his time, peeling back layers, revealing more and more about Agassi’s life. Some of the details — including one allegedly perpetrated by his father when Agassi was 12 — are shockingly dark gut-punches. By the time we get to the moment where his younger sister finds out her porn star brother is also an escort, and is visibly distraught by the revelation, the film morphs into something different, delving into a side of the sex-work industry we rarely glimpse. “I’m not a prostitute, I’m an escort,” he says, haughtily, to his sister. “I don’t stand in the street.”

The other central character in all this is Agassi’s mother, Anna. She’s the epitome of supportive, loving mother, but you can see the strain in her face when Jonathan flaunts his latest ass-cheek-revealing leatherwear and high heels or asks her to watch one of his movies. “I’m your man,” Agassi says to her at one point, to which she soberly responds, “I consider you my child first, not my man.” Their relationship is jarring at times, but the movie is as much about a parent’s unconditional love and acceptance as it is about the life of a porn star.

While the trajectory may be one of classic downfall, Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life rarely feels exploitative. It fully celebrates and tries to make sense of this tender, sweet man-child who is simultaneously arrogant, narcissistic, and extremely vulnerable. “I really do not want to let people down,” he says, referring to his clients. “When someone goes to be with Jonathan Agassi, they want a god.” In believing his own self-manufactured myth — one that no mere mortal can live up to — he shatters himself and those around him. —Randy Shulman

Seahorse

CRITIC’S PICK

SEAHORSE

Sunday, Oct. 27, 12:30 p.m.

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Jeanie Finlay’s documentary Seahorse, following transgender gay man Freddy McConnell’s decision to carry and deliver his own a child, is a thoughtfully paced, intimate journey that is as much about making sense of an unprecedented situation as it is about breaking new ground in identity. With subject-matter this likely to draw knee-jerk reactions, Finlay’s choice to weave in interludes of the natural beauty surrounding Freddie’s seaside home and close-ups of the eponymous seahorse (males of whom give birth) is a good one: it keeps the tone contemplative, never sensational.

Just as importantly, it allows the viewer time to reflect on Freddie, creating space to separate reactions to him as a person (a bit spoiled, a bit self-indulgent) from the wider, interesting and important exploration of what he has chosen to do. The bottom line is that Freddy is not always likable as he whines about a choice he made willingly, fails to appreciate the family who unfailingly stand by him, and removes himself from the one family member who takes off the kid gloves and asks a few honest (if perhaps misguided) questions. But if Finlay stays true to this man and his foibles, she also gets that something this important can never be reduced to a popularity contest and her well-crafted approach invites larger, fascinating, open-ended questions about gender, biology, creating babies and the human quest for happiness and fulfillment.

Finlay’s camera is subtle, her asking of the occasional question is unobtrusive, her judicious use of footage Freddie has filmed of himself in private is effective. Her subtle choice to include an array of nonjudgmental female healthcare professionals, quite content to help Freddie from beginning to end, offers its own silent commentary, as do Finlay’s occasional shots of women going about their business without fanfare.

And this touches on one of Finlay’s other unspoken themes: Seahorse is also a thoughtful and accurate essay on how pregnancy affects the self. Freddy is far from the only pregnant person to feel they have lost control of their sense of self, physical and emotional, and wonder if they have made a terrible mistake. And although almost a throwaway line, his comment that if men got pregnant, “we’d never hear the end of it” adds an enduringly poignant note. Though there isn’t the time to explore them all, Finlay’s choice to allow these interesting nuances means that Freddy is never an oddity to be observed at arm’s length, but rather a fully relatable brother, son, friend, lover and, finally, father. All told, it’s a compelling close-up on an extraordinary experience and it skillfully and sensitively charts a new frontier in how we view identity. —Kate Wingfield

Seahorse is preceded by Something About Alex (▼▼▼▼▼), about as perfect as short-form filmmaking can be. It’s a stunning 17-minute sucker punch that comes out of left field and will leave you breathless in your seat. It opens in a blend of Call Me By Your Name and God’s Own Country, as Alex (Maas Bronkhuyzen) navigates life on a rural Dutch farm and struggles with his feelings for his older sister’s boyfriend. And then… well… buy a ticket and find out for yourself. We won’t spoil anything, and neither should you. Just sit down and let Reinout Hellenthal’s short film wreck you in the best way possible. —Rhuaridh Marr

The Last Romantics

CRITIC’S PICK

IRL…IN REAL LIFE

Sunday, Oct. 27, 2:30 p.m.

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Shorts programs are always hit or miss, but this one hits far more than it misses, and three of its hits are home runs, one that goes completely out-of-the-park.

Things kick off with the weakest of the lot, All We Are (▼▼▽▽▽), in which a younger man answers the ad of an older man looking for an anonymous sexual encounter. The single encounter quickly blooms into a year of encounters, which blooms into genuine affection, even though the pair know nothing about the other. And then comes the “BIG STUPID TWIST.” To say that All We Are is idiotic is to pay it more of a compliment than it deserves. However, Will Stewart’s film at least feature a solid performance from Matthew Risch (the younger guy). John Lacy, on the other hand, is so stiff (in all the wrong ways), you wonder if he downed a bottle of Viagra before the shoot.

It’s followed by RUOK (▼▼▼▼▼), which is everything a clever, appealing short film should be. The first half is expressed in wordless texting between two friends who have had a falling out over a man, but Jay Russell’s film has something in mind that flips it on its head and gives it a good, hard spin. It’s utterly brilliant and totally unexpected. Sweater (▼▼▼▽▽) is five minutes of nothing, with two minutes wasted on an elaborately choreographed dance sequence that feels like an apology from the filmmaker for not coming up with a real storyline. Moreover, the treatment of the main, pink-sweatered character by a prospective date seems unusually harsh. The film’s best moment comes when said shlemiel orders a cup of coffee and the reply is “That’ll be $9.”

The Brazilian entry The Last Romantics (▼▼▼▼▼▼) is the clear winner here. A monologue about a graphic sexual encounter in a movie theater, told from two different points of view, is a poetically simple, stunningly effective piece of work. It’s 12 minutes of sheer, utter brilliance and its three actors — Mauricio Barcellos, Lucas Canavarro, and Victor Gorgullo — give remarkable readings that are fully transfixing. It should be shown twice, as one viewing is not enough.

The program concludes on a delightful note with Lukewarm (▼▼▼▼▽), about a first date that’s somewhat unusual. It’s a one-joke film, but it wears its premise well and with conviction, and is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. It features two dead-on perfect performances by Eric Feltes and John Potter, who also wrote the screenplay. To be honest, Lukewarm shouldn’t work as well as it does, but director Mitch Yapko’s sense of pacing and the playful conviction of the performances carry it to a conclusion that will make you wonder if you shouldn’t try a similar tactic on your next date.

More Than He Knows

CROSSING THE LINE

Sunday, Oct. 27, 4 p.m.

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Polyamory and non-monogamy feature multiple times in this shorts program, starting with More Than He Knows (▼▼▽▽▽), in which a husband has sex with another man during a staycation with his wife and her father-in-law in Palm Springs. Why is the father-in-law there? No one knows. Why does this cliche-ridden short exist? Other than as some kind of fantasy project, that’s also unknown. Come for the incredibly handsome Julian Fletcher, stay for a cheap joke about nuts that gets a laugh, and try not to leave during the not-at-all surprising twist ending.

In Tadpole (▼▼▼▼▽), a gem of a short, three young friends get together to play games, drink a parent’s discovered liquor, and, for one of them, wrestle with burgeoning sexuality — particularly after one of the boys opens an erotic film on his phone. Are his feelings reciprocated by one of the youths? Jovan James’ short plays out that question in unflinchingly real fashion, and it’s all the better for it.

Bizarre, compelling, amusing, beautiful, erotic — all can accurately describe Manuel Marmier’s French-Japanese entry Kiko’s Saint (▼▼▼▼▼). Kiko (Lika Minamoto) is a Japanese artist sent to France to create paintings as a favor for her husband. There, she stumbles across two handsome men enjoying the beach and each other, roaming the dunes and one another’s bodies while totally naked. Spying on them awakens something in Kiko, as she finds her inspiration and her independence in their heaving, sandy sex. It’s exactly as odd as it sounds, but it’s also phenomenally good. From the beautiful cinematography, to Minamoto’s engaging central performance, to the highly erotic sex scenes, to the beautifully illustrated art, this is 25 minutes of utterly confusing joy.

Next up is a millennial love triangle told in reverse chronology. She Who Hears (▼▼▼▽▽) starts at the breakup of Simone and Andrea, and then dials back through a recap of their brief relationship — and the man who continues to occupy space in Simone’s head. Though it’s far from groundbreaking, writer-director Alexi Papalexopoulos offers a curious take on a familiar tale. Shifting gears, Playmates (▼▼▼▼▽) offers seven minutes of supremely well-crafted comedy, following a husband through a mini breakdown as he and his wife prepare to host another couple for their first swingers night. Becky Bradshaw’s film hits all the right notes, with two charismatic leads — Jackie Osori as Katherine and Mike Schiff as Peter — and an abundance of laugh-out-loud one-liners (“I’m a polite person,” Peter worries, “if he goes down on me I’m gonna have to reciprocate.”). The couple (mainly Peter) runs through everything that could go wrong, from the other man being “bigger” to whether they should leave lube on the coffee table — and Playmates does it all with wit and style.

Continuing that stylish trend, single men should prepare to feel attacked because Tristian Scott-Behrends’ deliciously cynical Only Trumpets (▼▼▼▼▽) is coming for you. Mocking everything from gay dating apps to couples who strive for heteronormativity to our obsession with micro-categorizing ourselves (bear, twink, “straight-acting,” etc.), Xavier Jimenez-March stars as Tristan, who is navigating the world of dating, casual hookups, and possible romance in a film that’s part dissertation, part rumination, and oozing with flair.

The program closes on another love triangle in Pancakes (▼▼▼▽▽). Emily Friedman’s film is thin, but offers a compelling performance from Natalie Llerena as Madison, the “other woman” forced to sit and have breakfast with Leyla, the woman she’s dating, and Tim — the unknowing boyfriend Leyla’s yet to dump. A million questions run across Madison’s face as she listens to Tim witter on about nothing — Why am I here? What am I doing? — until she finally snaps. Llerena carries this film through its seven-minute runtime, and hers is a dilemma sure to resonate. —Rhuaridh Marr

Before We Grow Old

CRITIC’S PICK

BEFORE WE GROW OLD

Sunday, Oct. 27, 4 p.m.

German and English, with English subtitles

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Before We Grow Old is that rare film that bursts onto the screen with an immediate, tangible energy. A man and a woman meet at an art show, the chemistry between them gently simmering. They talk, they laugh, she then reveals her boyfriend, who joins them. All of a sudden, the boyfriend’s hand is on the man’s leg, they’re discussing his penis size, and then the whole situation is over, as the man denies any bisexuality and leaves.

It’s a tone, a moment, a fizzing of sexuality that tees up the rest of Thomas Moritz Helm’s 90-minute film. Centered on bisexual couple Maria (Paula Knüpling) and Niels (Maximilian Hildebrandt), the pair romp through Berlin fueled by endorphins and arousal, with Helm’s script unashamedly displaying their sexual energy for all to see — literally so, as in one electric, three-minute scene where Niels masturbates Maria on a park bench while describing a threeway in a shower with another man.

And then Maria meets British student Chloë (Tala Gouveia), and everything changes. Suddenly, there’s a secret, a wedge driven between the young couple as Maria and Chloë carry on an affair out of Niels’ sight — or so they think. But far from drive this young couple apart, they instead come up with a solution: open up their relationship to Chloë.

While at first their sexual fantasies are realized in embracing polyamory, far from solving their problems, Chloë instead leads to a total imbalance in the dynamic of the relationship — and the relationships within the new relationship, of Niels and Maria, Niels and Chloë, and Maria and Chloë. Every time Niels or Maria pairs off with Chloë individually, a new fracture seems to appear — though Helms doesn’t refrain from the humor in these foreshadowing moments, such as Niels calmly reading the paper while Maria and Chloë loudly moan in the bedroom.

That foreshadowing comes to fruition in a true test for this new throuple, one — obviously — involving Chloë, in a way that brings entirely unexpected jealousies to the fore. Helms keeps tight control of his excellent cast during this transition, with the core trio each excelling in their own ways, with particular praise to Hildebrandt for the ease with which he can switch from showcasing confident, raw sexuality to shrinking with hurt fragility. Gouveia similarly shines in a moment where Chloë bristles at Niels after a moment of unexpected obnoxiousness, transforming from easy breezy to steely resolve.

The script crackles with a natural ease, moving between comedy and drama, life and philosophy, laughter and tears, and English and German with a commendable deftness. It’s a testament to Helms’ skill that an hour breezes by until things really start to break down, but it only feels like twenty minutes. And while Before We Grow Old could easily seem like a cliched warning against polyamory, its strong cast and Helms’ filmmaking instead make it clear that these are flawed people, living flawed lives, making flawed decisions based on very human emotions and desires. Polyamory can work, but for Niels and Maria it should perhaps have remained on the park bench, oblivious to passersby.

Non-monogamy, polyamory, jealousy, hurt, and the secrets one person can hold all come together in Lavender (▼▼▼▼▽), an impactful, almost wordless short from Matthew Puccini that kicks off the program. A young gay man (Michael Hsu Rosen) finds himself increasingly enmeshed in the lives of an older gay couple (Michael Urie and Ken Barnett), as he struggles to come to terms with his place in their reality — and his own. Beautifully shot and surprisingly impactful beyond its quiet, contemplative 10-minute runtime, Lavender also throws in a twist ending that will leave more questions than answers — and, presumably, challenge audience perceptions about what a “relationship” truly is, and what ways people can love.

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