The 28th Annual Reel Affirmations LGBTQ Film Festival is up and running now through Sunday, Oct. 24.
All films — shorts and features — are available online, but select features will get in-person screenings at the GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th Street NW in Washington, D.C. starting Friday, Oct. 22.
Our reviews are presented in alphabetical order of their program title. If a movie has an in-person screening, it’s noted.
To purchase individual tickets or festival passes, or for more information, visit https://reelaffirmations.eventive.org/welcome.
GALA Hispanic Theatre
Friday, Oct. 22, 9 p.m.
Also Available Online
BOY MEETS BOY SOMEHOW manages to pull off being both a lazy Sunday movie and a metaphysical exercise on homosexuality. After meeting at a discotheque the night before, Johannes (Alexandros Koutsoulis) and Harry (Matthew James Morrison) wander about balmy Berlin, with the latter set to fly back to the U.K. that evening. Throughout the day, their conversations swing, often jarringly, from engaging banter to on-the-nose discussions about religion, jobs, and queerness. However, moments of depth and passion, the actors’ incredible chemistry, and the backdrop of picturesque parks and the summer sun make the film worth a watch.
As the boys roam the city and share their worldviews and ideals, their dynamic ebbs and flows. Harry, an intellectual doctor who would never sleep with the same person twice, is contrasted with Johannes, a more emotional dancer who prefers monogamy. What is most compelling about Daniel Sánchez López’s feature debut is when the boys act differently from how they describe themselves (through jokes about cheese personality types), sometimes behaving more like you’d expect the other to. Clashing and coinciding, they become only more mutually fascinated, touching and dancing in many scenes, both with and without music.
Cinematographer Hanna Biørnstad’s excellent camerawork makes the boy’s intimacy palpable, juxtaposing it with the energy and vibrancy of Berlin. Harry and Johannes are almost detached from the city, existing on a separate plane. This embodies theorist Elizabeth Freeman’s notion that queer characters (and people) function outside socially excepted timelines like payday schedules and transcend them. Indeed, the pair avoid paying for lunch, eschewing normal life. For Harry, Berlin is an expiration-dated reprieve from capitalistic work pressures, and for Johannes, Harry is an escape from something else that’s somewhat heteronormative. But if Freeman’s notion of chrononormativity is operating here, the boys’ dialogue simply isn’t good enough for the film to avoid having them interact more with their outer world.
López and Hannah Renton’s screenplay offers a rich exploration of how the internet has changed love and sex and what it means to be a young gay man today. Johannes and Harry debate Tinder and Grindr and are affectionate in public, homophobia not so much an external threat in the city — even when they encounter Mormon missionaries — as it is internalized. The boys’ not-quite-relationship feels real, refreshing, and resonant. Boy Meets Boy could have more subtly characterized its protagonists, but they will captivate you anyway. —Rudy Malcom
“OUR LIFE REVOLVES around being caught,” Roma tells Paloma at one point in Nicola Mai’s innovative and illuminating semi-documentary Caught (Caer), developed in close collaboration with the New York-based TRANSgrediendo Intercultural Collective. This skillful blend of fiction and nonfiction works to reveal the nuances and complexities of life for trans Latin women, particularly those willingly employed as sex workers, beyond what either a straightforward narrative feature or interview-based documentary could do alone.
It’s one thing to hear about overzealous police work and entrapment, or the important distinctions between sex work and trafficking, and decriminalization and legalization, but it’s quite another to also see vivid, unvarnished reenactments, further bolstered by additional insights and anecdotes from those with similar lived experiences.
Mai, a U.K.-based filmmaker who works as a sociologist and anthropologist at the University of Newcastle, developed Caught‘s core fictional story and characters through writing workshops with members of the Collective, who are further represented as non-professional actors in the cast and as participants offering feedback from a group screening of the film. It’s precisely this multi-level involvement and engagement that makes Caught more compelling and persuasive than it might have been otherwise.
As you watch the film, you may sense that Jennifer Orellana Delgado and Ashley Rendon — who play Roma and Paloma — are not professional actors. Yet you don’t doubt for a second the sincerity, conviction, or veracity of their realistic portrayals.
Lorena Borjas, the Collective’s founder, is one key figure featured and interviewed in the film, which is ultimately dedicated in her memory — sadly, the indomitable, inspiring, battle-hardened trans activist was an early casualty of COVID-19. The Mexican immigrant’s legacy will live on through her work pushing for better mental health and individual determination among the trans and queer members of her community. As she puts it in the film, “We live in Queens. We demand respect!” —Doug Rule
GALA Hispanic Theatre
Friday, Oct. 22, 10:30 p.m.
Also Available Online
LAVISHLY SHOT, BEAUTIFULLY costumed, and rich in detail, Firebird feels untethered by budgetary restraints. The film exudes an “awards season” quality that is usually reserved to only the most prominent and mainstream of LGBTQ films — think Carol or Moonlight. Beneath that glossy sheen lies a fairly conventional melodrama, but what Firebird‘s tale of forbidden love in the Soviet Air Force lacks in boundary-breaking filmmaking, it more than makes up for in style and substance.
It centers on Sergey (Tom Prior), a soldier who dreams of a life in the theater far from his cold Cold War military career, and Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii), a dashing fighter pilot who takes a keen interest in the young private, hiring him to chauffeur him through the bleak surroundings of their base. The chemistry between Prior and Zagorodnii is palpable as the military men cruise one another, their glances, slight touches, and gently prodding conversations taking place in an environment entirely inhospitable to any notion of deviance, sexual or otherwise.
That constant tension, both sexual and literal, drives the plot, as the men test the limits of what they can comfortably get away with on their highly regimented base. Suspicions naturally start to rise, leading Roman to panic and propose to Sergey’s best (and besotted) friend, Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya). From here, Firebird drifts from its flight plan, the initial emotional intensity giving way to big leaps in time as we move through key moments in Sergey and Roman’s will-they-won’t-they relationship, including Roman’s wedding and Sergey’s move to Moscow to pursue acting.
Throughout, Prior delivers a standout performance as the emotionally bruised Sergey, with his determination to pursue his dreams constantly butting against his buried feelings for Roman. Zagorodnii similarly keeps pace, telegraphing his pilot’s desire, albeit hemmed in by the fear of discovery. Unfortunately, the other woman to Sergey’s other man, Pozharskaya’s Luisa, is severely underutilized. Pozharskaya lights up the screen during her scenes, but Prior and director Peeter Rebane’s script gives her little room to explore her emotions, beyond a stunning breakdown in the film’s third act as she fully processes the hidden truth of her marriage.
Rebane keeps tight control of proceedings, his camera lingering on expressions, ravishing in the film’s incredible production design, and, alongside cinematographer Mait Mäekivi, moving through lavish shots of countryside, bleak cityscapes, and period-appropriate interiors. Color also serves as a narrative device — when Sergey and Roman are separated, emotionally or physically, everything is painted cold and blue. When they are together, whether stealing kisses, engaged in passionate lovemaking, or on a beach getaway, the screen is awash in warm, golden tones.
Where Firebird stumbles is in the sense that we’ve seen it all before. It may be based on a true story, but the melodrama, the secret dance of illicit love, the typically maudlin ending — gay cinema is littered with such tales. Yet few are as beautifully realized as Firebird. It’s just a shame that fiction beat fact to the screen. —Rhuaridh Marr
The First Death of Joana
GALA Hispanic Theatre
Sunday, Oct. 24, 4 p.m.
ZOOM Watch Party
Sunday, Oct. 24, 4 p.m.
Also Available Online
THE TITLE OF CHRISTIANE Oliveira’s second feature, The First Death of Joana, hints at a lot of intriguing possibilities of what this Brazilian film might be about. It begins with a funeral, suggesting either a family drama or a horror movie. It’s the funeral of Rosa, a 70-year-old spinster (to borrow an outdated phrase), but as her friends and family tell it, she was never unhappy. She lived life to the fullest, even when she was dying. The only person who doesn’t believe this story is her 13-year-old grandniece, Joana (Letícia Kacperski). She decides to investigate Rosa’s life by going through her belongings, asking her closest acquaintances, and occasionally channeling her aunt.
Oliveira doesn’t feel the need to clear up any tonal direction for the viewer. At some points, she seems to be using some Terrence Malick techniques by emphasizing nature throughout the film. Characters are usually seen in a field or forest, traveling on a boat through an algae-ridden lagoon, or observing the wind turbines that dominate their landscape as their story unfolds.
Oliveira also doesn’t shy away from moments that seem to be a prelude to something menacing: Joana’s mother and grandmother give each other very portentous glances as she curiously asks about Rosa’s past, occasionally showing us the miniature figurines Rosa whittled. And like David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, where Casey Affleck’s spirit is always observing the life he’s left, the memory of Rosa never seems to leave Joana alone.
Then there’s the relationship of Joana and her friend Carolina (Isabella Bressane), a girl with a questionable reputation with the boys. With microaggression and actual violence against Carol from her schoolmates, Joana has to decide if their friendship is worth all the drama, even though there might be a spark of attraction from Joana to this wild spirit.
When Oliveira finally gives us her resolution, it does feel something of a letdown. However, the mood and atmosphere she creates with cinematographer Bruno Polidoro is so impressive and hypnotic, that the movie is always an enjoyable ride, even if the payoff is somewhat muted. —Cary Wong
GALA Hispanic Theatre
Friday, Oct. 22, 7 p.m.
Also Available Online
SET IN THE SUMMER of 1986, Gossamer Folds imagines a cross-generational friendship between a trans woman named Gossamer and her new neighbor, a young boy from the city. When we first meet the precocious and opinionated 10-year-old Tate, whose family has just transplanted him under duress to a sleepy exurb of Kansas City, he is lonely and unhappy in his new home and struggles to make friends and relate to his distant father and neurotic mother.
Taking every chance he can to slip away from his high-strung, constantly fighting parents, Tate takes refuge next door in his friendship with Gossamer, a gifted seamstress who designs costumes for friends in the city and lives with her retired professor father. Although Tate spars with her at first and calls her a “deviant,” she takes a liking to him. For his part, he seems intrigued by her sharpness at least as much as he is by his father’s knee-jerk prohibition against going over to her house.
Alexandra Grey is a standout as Gossamer, and her chemistry with Tate is believable, not least because it is unsurprising that a kid so old for his years would form his first meaningful friendship with an adult who would take the time to listen to him and meet him at his own level. Gossamer and Tate grow close and her father also bonds with him by indulging his curiosity for the world, giving him a refuge of sorts and a model of a healthier family dynamic, albeit one that is not without its own tensions.
Gossamer is much more than a foil for Tate’s precociousness, with her own family dynamic to navigate with her kind but uncomprehending father and childhood friend Jimbo, not to mention plans to eventually save up enough to leave the heartland behind and move to New York. At first, we encounter Gossamer largely through Tate’s eyes, as a strong, affable, somewhat mysterious figure, but the more glimpses we see of her life, the more the urgency of her need to leave becomes apparent.
We eventually see her as a more fully realized person, and when Tate does finally face the prospect of her moving on, he has the grace to realize that she had to leave for her own reasons. Unlikely as the friendship depicted in Gossamer Folds may be, it is a heartwarming story of two people inspiring each other to grow and flourish, and ultimately leave each other better off than they were when they met. —Sean Maunier
THIS COLLECTION OF shorts will resonate with anyone who has spent time locked down over the last two years. It tackles the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as more personal issues of loneliness and self-reflection.
In Lilies (★★★★☆), the pandemic is front and center. Joni Whitworth’s spare film is a rumination on lockdown, starting with the quiet contemplation of its early days, as we all moved indoors and got reacquainted with ourselves. Told in voiceover, Whitworth’s beautiful monologue finds her appreciating the details of life, the peacefulness of a world on pause, and the ability to have constant sex with her girlfriend — “Frankly, the end of the world makes me horny.” Onscreen, familiar snippets of quarantine life — coffee brewing, video games being played — are stitched together with abstract details from nature, all while Whitworth’s narration grows ever more contemplative and, as the pandemic takes hold, ever more somber. She reflects on her own privilege, on the hardships of her fellow artists, and, like so many of us, wonders when — and if — things will get better.
Reasons To Stay (★★★★☆) opens with a content warning, alerting to themes of suicidal ideation. But far from exploiting the mental health struggles that many experienced over the last two years, Ezra Li’s film offers hope and beauty in equal measure. A young gay man (Li) questions the point of his own existence — “I’m not really sad, I just don’t care” — compounded by isolation and unsubtle references to the Trump presidency and looming environmental disaster. At his darkest moment, an angel (Ezra Michel) appears, offering him reasons to stay. Li’s film packs a lot into four minutes, including Barbie newsreaders and a cardboard apartment, but its emotional impact will resonate long after the credits have rolled.
Self-appreciation takes an absurd turn in Lilac Lips, Dutchess County (★★★☆☆), Tristan Scott-Behrends’ modern retelling of Narcissus. Joey Gray is our self-obsessed protagonist, who stares at their own (beautiful) reflection only to be transported into what can best be described as a fever dream, including eating with and ultimately having sex with themselves, all while arguing about their various positive traits. Truly bizarre, but undeniably fun.
The program closes out by transforming isolation into refuge in Jeremy Munro’s wordless short Bill (★★★★★). Our titular character (Jamie Pierce) comes home from a presumably bland office job, dressed in a similarly bland suit and tie and visibly frustrated. However, professional oppression gives way to personal expression after a shower, as Bill wraps up in a towel and fairy lights, throws another towel around his head, and dances joyously in the living room. Only behind closed doors can we sometimes truly be free. —Rhuaridh Marr
AN OFTEN TRICKY topic where LGBTQ matters are concerned, family can mean a world of things depending on individual circumstances. The shorts in “It’s A Family Affair” reflect that, from coming out comedies to emotional dramas, and more than a few fraught mother-son relationships.
Nowhere is that truer than program opener Complicated (★★★★☆), Isak Kohaly’s tense drama about a gay man returning to live with his mother after a breakdown. Itamar (Omri Levi) struggles with panic attacks, while Adva (Hanny Nahmias) defines helicopter parent, all while longstanding tensions regarding his sexuality hang thick in the air. Kohaly perfectly captures the friction between mother and son as Itamar meets a potential love interest — is it homophobia from Adva, or just an intense desire to shield her son from further harm? The resolution is left open to interpretation, but it’s a satisfying journey nonetheless.
Do I Qualify for Love
Atlas Phoenix, a transmasculine Black, disabled, nonbinary filmmaker, recounts in unflinching detail a harrowing night of abuse at the hands of their parents in Do I Qualify for Love? (★★☆☆☆). Unfortunately, the presentation — Phoenix, appearing to glance at notes throughout, speaks directly to camera with minimal editing — hampers the storytelling, making for slightly uncomfortable viewing given the film’s 14-minute length.
Sushama Deshpande is the radiant heart of My Mother’s Girlfriend (★★★★★), a gorgeously captured short from India. Deshpande is Renuka, a middle-aged woman who wants nothing more than to spend her birthday with her girlfriend (Anju Alva Naik). Unfortunately, her son Mangesh (Suhas Sirsat) has other plans, and naturally uncovers his mother’s secret. The whole affair is so delightfully unraveled that Arun Fulara’s film can’t help but charm.
A snooping mother uncovers more than she bargains for in As Simple As That (★★★★☆). Felipe Cabral’s film is perhaps a few minutes longer than it needs to be, but the comedy is on point throughout, even as it teeters on the brink of farce. Dida Camero shines as the matriarch processing her son’s sexuality, while Charles Fricks draws a number of laughs as a father who knows a surprising amount about his son’s sexual exploits.
What could have been a powerful short about a lesbian daughter helping her estranged, homophobic mother recover from a stroke instead descends into idiocy. The Tale of the Daughter (★☆☆☆☆) is particularly frustrating given its first half is confidently acted by daughter (Jazyln Yoder) and mom (Leslie Stevens) and its narrative suggests a strong point of view. And then writer-director Taylor Hinds goes off the rails for no good reason.
That absurdity leads into unintended comedy in British drama Inertia (★★★☆☆), in which a spirited high school student decides to help a grieving teacher overcome the death of her wife, who was killed after being struck by a meteor. Yes, a meteor. That bizarre death overshadows Joanne Mitchell’s phenomenal performance as a woman with nothing left to lose, and — she feels — nothing left to live for.
Family is everywhere as a Bar Mitzvah descends into chaos in Mazel Tov (★★★☆☆). There’s so many things going on in this short — a possibly gay cousin returning from the army, a grandmother-mother feud, a divorce hanging in the air — that it all crowds awkwardly around the central narrative of Adam, a 13-year-old boy coming to terms with his sexuality on the biggest day of his life (so far). Watching his cousin do… well, something, with a male waiter certainly won’t help.
Closing out this program is Zoey Martinson’s utterly charming comedy Cupids (★★★★★), in which three adorable schoolchildren are determined to find a love interest for their female school bus driver. In a series of vignettes, they imagine a series of dates with various male figures from their lives, with everything from musical numbers to a man sobbing while throwing sliced meat into the ocean. You’ll see the ending coming from down the block, but it’s a wonderful ride regardless. —Rhuaridh Marr
Freak of Nature
LIFE AND LOVE ARE almost always more complicated than simple, and the grouping of shorts in this program very much reflect that reality. Written and directed by Luke Willis, Pool Boy (★★★☆☆) is a too-cool-for-school sketch of an unconventional summer crush — perfectly soundtracked by moody, atmospheric electronic tunes from Tourist and Thousand Acres. The story focuses on college jock Austin (Tim Torre), home for the summer, whose burgeoning lust for a certain boy in his family’s employ — the mysterious, gender non-conforming Star (River Gallo) — threatens to upend his heretofore straight existence, not to mention the expectations of his straight friends and ex-girlfriend.
Meanwhile, Hellin Kay’s Abby and Emily Go to Palm Springs (★★★★☆) plunges into the deep end of a rocky relationship of two young women embarking on their first vacation together. The setting, a gay desert paradise for some, becomes more of an emblematic mirage in this stylized short that, in a roundabout way, affirms the notion that the journey is more important than the destination — in love and in life.
In Daniel Garcia’s All For The 15 Thousand (Todo Por Los 15 Mil) (★★★☆☆), the relationship between exotic dancer Roxy (Joel Calderon) and Daniela (D. Rodrigues Aranda) isn’t just complicated, it’s a mystery — one that seemingly hinges on a certain unnamed medical procedure and how the Peruvian duo will be able to pay for it. Let’s just say Roxy has a trick up their sleeve.
The complications inherent in Yuval David’s work all revolve around the queer filmmaker’s on-the-fly approach to making man-on-the-street shorts. In One Actor Short – 2 (★★★★☆), we see David improvise a blind date and romantic comedy in tandem with several random passersby he meets in a park in Manhattan who he enlists to play along with him and his film crew. The resulting exchanges are far more interesting than they might sound on paper — and far less complicated than any other short in this program. That is, with the exception of JP Schiller’s Freak of Nature (★★★☆☆), a two-minute stop-motion animated vignette about a platypus recalling his species’ struggles to find acceptance in a binary world of ducks and beavers.
Last but hardly least among the complicated-themed shorts here — and certainly the longest, multiple times over — is Keagan Anfuso and Drew L. Brown’s 35-minute documentary The Grey Area (★★★★★). Years in the making, the film started simply as an effort to tell Anfuso’s larger-than-life struggles growing up in rural Florida “as a woman in the grey area” — a masculine woman who, all too often, is the only one around who is not confused about her gender identity and presentation. Yet The Grey Area goes well beyond the shocking and eye-opening details of Anfuso’s personal travails to include the experiences of four others who also don’t fit society’s antiquated gender mold of what a woman should look or act like. The film becomes especially powerful and moving when we see these five, diverse women interact and bond with each other, ultimately conveying a shared sense of hope and determination about the future. —Doug Rule
GALA Hispanic Theatre
Saturday, Oct. 23, 8 p.m.
Also Available Online
PHIL CONNELL’S JUMP, Darling is perhaps most notable for featuring one of the last performances of Cloris Leachman’s career. The legendary actress, who passed away at the age of 94 in January 2021, offers a quietly profound, poignant look at Margaret, an elderly woman for whom life no longer has a discernible point. Lonely and isolated in her spacious home in Prince Edward, Canada, Margaret is more than ready to leave these corporeal confines for what lies beyond.
When her 30-year-old grandson Russell (Thomas Duplessie) arrives on her doorstep, following a breakup with his boyfriend (the narrative’s weakest storyline), she finds temporary reprieve from her pain. Russell, however, has his own agenda, and as loving as he is, he can be rather curt and dismissive. An actor with dashed dreams, he’s set his sights on making his living as a drag queen named Fishy Falters. “Is that a legit job?” Margaret asks. “Can be,” he tartly replies. (Questionable, as no one seems to tip the drag queens in Canada.)
Russell seeks out the one more or less LGBTQ bar in the small Canadian town and, ballistically and persistently, forces himself onto its staff and patrons. He attempts to court a barback but, like most everything else in Connell’s film, the end result feels fragmented and incomplete.
It doesn’t help matters that Russell is a dislikable, morose character and Duplessie’s hang-dog eyes and uneven performance don’t do much to endear us to the man — or his drag persona. Still, there’s no question Russell has an abundance of love and concern for his grandmother, a point driven home near the climax as Russell performs what seems like an act of selfishness that is, in reality, an act of selflessness. It’s one of the most honest, engaging instances in the film.
Overflowing with gorgeous production values, the faults in Jump, Darling lie squarely in an aimless screenplay that feels cobbled together on Post-it Notes. Russell’s editorial pacing is off — scenes that should have an extra beat end abruptly, while others, like Russell practicing his drag routine, go on far longer than they should.
Every time Leachman shows up, however, you reinvest yourself. Her depth, her soulfulness, her quiet, heartbreaking somberness recall one of her best early performances — Ruth Popper in 1971’s The Last Picture Show, for which she won an Oscar. There are elements of Ruth here — the quiet despair over a loss too painful to remember, the regret over a career dream long abandoned. Leachman makes an otherwise middling film worth its weight in gold. And by the time it reaches its inevitable conclusion, your heart is duly filled. —Randy Shulman
THE FIRST LGBTQ FILM from Namibia, Kapana tells the love story of George (Adriano Visagie), an insurance broker, and Simeon (Simon Hanga), who sells kapana, a type of grilled meat. Made on a very low budget, the hour-long film sometimes verges on melodrama, but Philippe Talavera’s film, filled with warmth and passion, delivers an important public health message to a country where sodomy is still a crime.
The film’s protagonists, hailing from different parts of town, are very different. George lives openly, his coworkers and family liberal and accepting, whereas Simeon is closeted and his macho friends persistently make homophobic comments. After an unlikely one-night stand, the pair reunite at the kapana stand, a social place for people of varying economic backgrounds, and eventually pursue something of a relationship.
George’s decision to pursue Simeon is questionable, and both leads could be better developed. Nevertheless, Visagie and Hanga’s performances, barring certain moments, are electrifying, and their chemistry is palpable. The film normalizes gay relationships in a nation where they’re stigmatized. George and Simeon interact with straight society and are often accepted by it.
Some of the film’s interludes feel like testimonial ads for PrEP and condoms, but it makes sense, as Kapana was produced by ViiV Healthcare, which specializes in HIV treatment and prevention, and the Ombetja Yehinga Organisation Trust, which aims to raise awareness and mitigate the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic using the arts in Namibia. –Rudy Malcom
THERE’S ONE FILM in this shorts compilation that rises above all others — in execution, in design, in craft, in its ability to impart information in a captivating, engrossing manner. It opens your eyes to the accident of creation and the hidden gift of instinctive, gutsy talent. It fully draws you in as it layers on a multitude of topics in a seemingly effortless, uncomplicated way. It’s a powerful and accomplished morsel of filmmaking that demands to be seen and appreciated. But we’ll get to this wonder in a moment. First, the rest of the movies on offer in this uniquely superb history-based program.
The Hunter (★★★★☆) is a strange, intoxicating short about — well, we’re never quite sure, but it doesn’t matter. It’s set in 1985 in the sweltering summer heat of New York City and features a liaison between a melodramatic but socially charged Black gay man (Alan Mingo, Jr.) and the wide-eyed, entranced twink who, like a yapping pup, follows him home (Broadway’s Andrew Keenan-Bolger). Their brief journey includes a tense moment involving a Magnum and a terrified cabbie, a bit of silk bondage, and what appears to be a celestial orgasm. Sean McConnell’s film, beautifully realized, is probably best seen as a lyrical poem rather than a direct narrative. It’s anchored by a captivating performance by Mingo, who people might recognize from his unforgettable drag turn on season one of Doom Patrol and on Broadway as Lola in Kinky Boots. It would be nice to see Mingo in bigger cinematic roles. He’s got presence for miles.
It Was the Dog That Saved My Life (★★★★☆) is a poignant ten minutes, as Jonathan, an AIDS survivor, recounts the days spent caring for his dying boyfriend in the ’90s and the connection they shared with an adorable dog. With style and grace — a slick silk-screening motif — directors Sylvaine Alfar and Adam Golub create a tender, touching tribute to all those who suffered and loved during the peak of the epidemic.
The Beauty President
Anyone who remembers when Joan Jett Black ran as Queer Nation’s candidate for president opposite Bill Clinton in 1992 will appreciate Whitney Skauge’s The Beauty President (★★★★★), an uplifting recollection of what prompted Black — whose real name is Terence Alan Smith — to sneak into the Democratic Convention and make all of our voices heard. “Here we are, bringing queer issues to the campaign, right here, right now, in a dress!” Black, in full “dragalia,” tells one reporter. Black’s rationalization for running? “If a bad actor [Ronald Reagan] can be elected president, why not a good drag queen?” Why not, indeed?
Trade Center (★★★☆☆) is mainly notable for its recollection of the felled Twin Towers as a popular gay cruising spot in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. The voiceovers recall veritable orgies in the building’s public bathrooms and choreographed blowjobs in its underground stairwells. It’s an honest and insightful glimpse of the pre-Grindr days of gay hookups. The movie, directed by Adam Baran and based on Billy Miller’s book “The Towers of Cum & Horndogs of Yore,” takes a startling turn as the day of the building’s abrupt demise is recounted. The notion planted in one’s mind is not one that later exits quietly.
This brings us to the diamond of the collection: Disintegration Loops (★★★★★). It’s the longest short at this year’s festival, clocking in at 45 minutes. Yet there isn’t an instant wasted in David Wexler’s extraordinary movie about William Basinski, a composer of ambient music, who through a mix of luck, happenstance, talent, and instinct created a masterwork that served as an elegy for 9/11.
Through Zoom interviews with Basinski — who is quite the character, indeed — as well as his artistic contemporaries, the former editor of Pitchfork, and the producer of a box set that caused a sensation, Wexler brings forth the fascinating, multi-layered story of a gay fringe artist’s emergence into legendary status coupled with one of the great tragedies of our time. If that weren’t enough, Wexler bookends his documentary with a magnificently achieved visual depiction of the current pandemic that is as haunting as it is hopeful. It is an unsurpassable masterpiece of filmmaking. Don’t miss this opportunity to see it. —Randy Shulman
AS GLORIA ALLEN herself says in the first few minutes of Mama Gloria, it’s about time. Director Luchina Fisher’s documentary pays tribute to Allen, a trailblazing activist and longtime icon of Chicago’s trans community known, among other things, for starting a charm school for homeless trans youth to help them walk with confidence. The impact of Allen’s school is palpable in the film as she encounters girls who brim with affection as they share the impact that Mama Gloria had on them.
Fisher takes care to highlight the love and support that Allen received from the people in her life even as she faced violence and hostility from the world at large. Born in 1945, she transitioned with the help of her mother, a Jet magazine centerfold model who taught her about makeup, and her grandmother, who designed and sewed clothes for her after years of making gowns for Chicago’s Black ball scene. Allen points to that love that she received in her formative years as giving her the spark that she would pay forward later in life.
Allen is a warm and captivating storyteller, and for the most part is just allowed to talk and tell her stories. She does not shy away from the heartbreaking violence and mistreatment she experienced many times, but neither is she shy about sharing her joy and triumphs. Many of her recollections serve as a recounting of the Black trans history of Chicago. In the film’s middle portion, she talks about the South Side “sissy balls” she attended and the jolt that Stonewall sent through the community.
It is next to impossible not to love Gloria Allen. Profiling a living legend is no easy thing, but Mama Gloria treats its subject with love and respect. The film is a timely portrait of a Black trans woman widely loved by her community, aging with joy and grace and continuing to spread the love she has given so freely throughout her life. —Sean Maunier
THE SHORTS IN this compilation vary in how overtly political they are, but what most of these movies have in common is that they’ll leave you with an unforgettable feeling. The program kicks off with Fabiu (★★★★★), in which 80-year-old Arthur (Günter Tolar), living in Vienna, becomes attracted to the much younger titular character (Kristóf Gellén), a Hungarian and the first male nurse to help care for Arthur’s ailing wife Martha (Birgit Stimmer). The dialogue of writer-director Stefan Langthaler’s film is natural, humorous, and evocative, subtly revealing the characters’ shifting dynamic, the power differential progressively becoming more problematic. Close and lingering shots mimic Arthur’s growing desire for Fabiu and also paint an unnervingly sympathetic portrait of Arthur. Compact and sensitive, the film escalates without verging on melodrama and resolves any concern that the age gap in Call Me by Your Name is unethical.
Shot on a cell phone in Berlin, It Is Not the Brazilian Homosexuals Who Are Perverse, But the Situation in Which They Live (★★★★★) opens with two queer Brazilian men skinny dipping in a lake and singing “WAP” on a pandemic summer afternoon. Playing themselves, Eduardo Mamede and Paulo Menezes — co-directors with cinematographer Leandro Goddinho — banter about love, sex, immigration, fatphobia, and performative allyship. The film excels because, even though its protagonists are ridiculously nude, the real butt of the joke is something far sillier: colonialism.
To its detriment, Identibye (★★☆☆☆), set in Iran, features far less talkative leads, a man and woman played by AmirHossein Sabbaghan and Nasim Moslemi. In one potent scene, Sabbaghan’s character, sporting long hair and painted nails, dances with utter freedom, magnetic. In another, Moslemi’s character stands on the roof of a building, dwarfed by the beautiful cityscape. However, Sajjad Shahhatam’s film, seemingly about the leads’ relationship, is limited in its resonance due to its numbered interactions and lack of a clear purpose.
Also set in Iran, And Just Two More (★★☆☆☆) tells the story of a man’s struggles to have his same-sex lover counted in the census. The twist? His lover is a mannequin. Not to kink shame, but one wonders whether counting this film as LGBTQ is inappropriate. And Just Two More boasts pretty trees and mountains, but not much else besides confusion.
Somehow even more mysterious, Lessness (★★★☆☆) is like a cross between Groundhog’s Day and Freaky Friday, but told in Russian and ostensibly about being transgender. Oh, and it’s only six minutes long. As a result, there’s not much to be said without giving away the plot. The message of Mahdi Safavi’s film may be imperceptible, but you’re sure to feel something if you watch it because of the artful cinematography.
The next and last film in the cluster, The Dummy (★★★★☆), gets its title from a pussyhat-wearing mannequin that stands in the front yard of KHo, a self-described recycle artist. The documentary follows KHo in the days leading up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, during which she collects beach plastics and found objects — including Aviator sunglasses she steals from Costco — to lambaste then-President Donald Trump. The documentary, co-directed by KHo and cinematographer Trevor Bukowski, doesn’t intend to poke fun at her, but it’s hard to take her seriously. Nevertheless, The Dummy will leave you reflecting on your behavior during the election as well as anyone’s ability to have an impact on the political process. —Rudy Malcom
GALA Hispanic Theatre
Saturday, Oct. 23, 10 p.m.
Also Available Online
ONE OF THE UNDISPUTED triumphs of this year’s festival, and almost certainly one of the finest LGBTQ films of 2020, Poppy Field is a stunning revelation of filmmaking. It encompasses the whole of the human experience — lust, passion, shame, rage, fear, anguish, paranoia, regret, resignation — within its stark, gripping 89 minutes.
What’s all the more remarkable is that Poppy Field marks the debut of screenwriter Ioana Moraru, who brings a potent theatricality to the film’s dialogue and monologues (there’s one about a dog that is intensely shattering), and director Eugen Jebeleanu, who has an instinctive mastery of composition and generating atmosphere. Jebeleanu guides a story that initially feels light and promising into something far darker and emotionally troubling. The film moves from slow burn to explosive fire to the ruin of ash and smoking embers.
Poppy Field is carved into two distinct portions, both centering around Cristi (swarthy, broody Conrad Mericoffer). As we meet Cristi, he’s welcoming a visiting French, Muslim boyfriend, Hadi (a fetching, playful Radouan Leflahi), into his home for a weekend stay.
Hadi is raring to go, but Cristi is reticent, likely for good reason. His hometown of Bucharest is a homophobic hotbed, filled with ultra-religious fanaticism. Pay attention to the tiny details in the quiet, slightly tense early scenes between Cristi and Hadi, as well as an unannounced, awkward visit by Cristi’s sister. They are vital, as they set up a change in tenor for the movie’s riveting second half.
Cristi, it turns out, is a member of the Jandarmeria — Romanian special forces who serve as the hyper-macho muscle behind the country’s civilian police. On this particular night, they’re called in to address a protest at a theater screening an LGBTQ movie. “Gays out of this country,” chant the protestors, who appear to implicitly have the Jandarmeria’s support.
The scenes of rage between the theater’s LGBTQ patrons and the protestors are alarming, and may even be triggering to some viewers. Into this milieu, Jebeleanu drops the deeply closeted Cristi and lets the cameras roll, verité-style. The cinematic results are masterful.
Cristi tries desperately to vanish into the wall, secret internal conflict literally exuding from every pore. But circumstances ultimately fling him into a situation filled with unrelenting paranoia and isolation. Jebeleanu revels — quite brilliantly and effectively — in the unbeknownst.
Some American audiences might become impatient with the film’s ambiguousness — we’re so used to a literal, hammer-over-the-head approach — but Poppy Field refuses to offer easy solutions to a complex problem. It’s still a messy, harrowing world out there for LGBTQ people, and Poppy Field is intent on reminding all of us that a happily ever after for some holds little hope. —Randy Shulman
Potato Dreams of America
POWER THROUGH THE first ten minutes of Wes Hurley’s experimental, semi-autobiographical dark comedy and you’ll be rewarded with a film that’s as much about the fickle nature of the American Dream as it is about a young gay boy’s coming-of-age embracement of both his sexuality and identity. Locked behind Potato Dreams of America‘s opening, with its varying tone, inconsistent acting, and ropey sets, lies a thoughtful, occasionally vibrant exploration of the immigrant experience, told from a uniquely LGBTQ perspective.
Hurley first captured his journey from closeted child in Soviet-era Vladivostok to gay teenager in ’90s Seattle in the short documentary, Little Potato, its title a nod to his nickname growing up. Here, he turns his story into a 90-minute feature, expanding on his medically-trained mother’s bid to become a mail-order bride for an American man and subsequent escape from their Russian nightmare.
Potato Dreams marks a very clear line between the two halves of its tale. The first is told in almost theatrical style, with small, moving sets, spare backdrops, and centered mostly on Potato (Hersh Powers) and his mother, Lena (Sera Barbieri), his conservative grandmother (a superbly cast Lea DeLaria), and their cramped apartment, where Potato and Lena escape into dreams of America via pirated Hollywood films.
Potato Dreams of America
Hurley, writing and directing, blazes through Lena’s divorce from an abusive husband, her failed subsequent relationships, and her decision to save her delicate son from military conscript by marrying an American man. As it transpires, the rough edges are deliberate — something not made apparent until the film’s end — but the lurches between faint comedy and emotional drama, coupled with Powers’ stilted performance as a young Potato, require a dedicated effort to push through.
Do so, and you’ll be rewarded with the Potato Dreams‘ second half, which recasts Potato and Lena (Tyler Bocock and Marya Sea Kaminski) and brings the occasionally manic narrative conventions back down to Earth, as mother and son settle into life with John (Dan Lauria) in America. Unfortunately, their American Dream quickly faces two hurdles: the sidelining of immigrants, whether Potato constantly being reminded of his Russian origins or Lena going from doctor in Russia to taco-maker in Seattle, and John’s orthodox Christian faith ruling every aspect of their lives.
Here, Hurley mines emotional gold from Bocock as a teen struggling with both his identity and his sexuality, leading to electrifying scenes like his internal debate over whether to rent a gay film all while crushing on the video store clerk. Kaminski similarly shines, particularly after Lena learns that their future in America depends on how obediently she follows John’s wishes. Lauria is suitably menacing as the devout patriarch, particularly when Potato’s sexuality becomes household news, but a second secret — one that genuinely shocked in Hurley’s short documentary — is delivered here in oddly flat fashion.
That inconsistency carries throughout the film, but the end result is no less impactful. Whether it’s the more experimental segments of the first half — a musical number from Mary, mother of Jesus, or Jesus himself (a hilarious Jonathan Bennett) becoming an imaginary friend-cum-couch surfer after Potato literally “finds” him — or the nuanced performances of its second half, Potato Dreams of America offers just enough to satisfy. —Rhuaridh Marr
Queens of the Revolution
THE SETTING OF this charming, unassuming, and insightful documentary is the small, centrally located city that helped usher in the Cuban Revolution more than 60 years ago — and is home to the Che Guevara Mausoleum, no less. Yet the focus is on a ragtag assortment of mostly queer contemporary Cubans who, in one way or another, have helped foment another revolution within the Revolution all these decades later. Through Rebecca Heidenberg’s deft camerawork, we meet a handful of drag and trans entertainers, including two who heroically survived multiple stints and many years locked away in prison as well as in Fidel Castro’s notorious labor camps for homosexuals.
These unheralded pillars of present-day Cuba are among the star entertainers at El Mejunje, the vibrant meeting place, cultural center, and nightclub, welcoming to all, that Ramón Silverio opened 30 years ago in the town of Santa Clara. Above them all stands the shy, self-effacing entertainer and pioneering activist known as the Queen Mother — but also known, as she wryly tells us, as “the First Lady of this city and a little beyond” — a trans woman who committed herself to fighting homophobia and transphobia from prison many decades ago “so that we could be happy and they wouldn’t persecute us anymore.” While many others in her generation fled such persecution by emigrating to Miami and beyond, she and others felt “a need to be here,” as another veteran queen puts it in a separate interview.
Presented in observational, slice-of-life vignette style, the hour-long documentary gradually if obliquely, and with little fanfare, builds to a climactic celebratory gala outside El Mejunje at which the participants take the stage to reflect on their progress and revel in the moment. You’ll revel, too, in the opportunity to see such everyday LGBTQ heroes deserving of Heidenberg’s rare spotlight and then some. —Doug Rule
GALA Hispanic Theatre
Saturday, Oct. 23, 11:30 p.m.
Also Available Online
RAW! UNCUT! VIDEO! BEGINS with a clip of an old television spot discussing the legality of pornography — “that is, hardcore obscenity,” the gravely concerned host helpfully clarifies. We then cut immediately to a grainy clip of a man with his jeans half-down fucking a puddle of mud as if to playfully say, “See? Obscenity!”
With that clip, co-directors Ryan A. White and Alex Clausen ease us into the story of Palm Drive Video, a pioneering safe-sex fetish porn studio. The brainchild of Jack Fritscher and his partner Mark Hemry, Palm Drive specialized in highly niche kinks, the type of content that was vanishingly rare in 1979, if it existed at all. The couple left San Francisco to set up the studio in rural Sonoma county and sought out everyman types as performers, lending their content a ruggedness that audiences enthusiastically responded to.
As if to make the point that the luridness and unconventional nature of Palm Drive’s content has aged well, clips from their film catalog are interspersed with interviews with the people behind and in front of the camera, and occasionally, the performers’ families. The fetish content depicted in them is graphic, raunchy, and highly niche, but also genuinely enjoyable for the performers and producers — enjoyment that everyone involved seems to agree translated well onto the screen.
Fritscher recalls at one point that in the fraught cultural climate of the ’80s, he believed they had a mission to celebrate the fun of sex. The documentary is not just a history of a moment in the history of pornography, but of a cultural shift in the way sex and kink were thought of and talked about among gay and queer men. Set amidst the background of the AIDS epidemic, White and Clausen take care to underline that sex and activism were inseparable, and that there was enormous significance in Palm Drive’s championing of kink and sex positivity as AIDS raged through the community.
Filmed and compiled with incredible attention to detail and sensitivity for the context and importance of its subject, Raw! Uncut! Video! is a love letter not just to Palm Drive Video or even the history and cultural significance of adult filmmaking, but also to the ways sexuality thrives in an uncomprehending and hostile world. —Sean Maunier
GALA Hispanic Theatre
Saturday, Oct. 23, 1 p.m.
ZOOM Watch Party
Saturday, Oct. 23, 1 p.m.
Also Available Online
FULLY IN THE TRADITION of quality independent and well-acted Australian filmmaking, The Greenhouse is a stunning study in family grief, if a little less persuasive when it comes to some attempts at magical realism.
Set in and around a large Australian country house (and peripheral guest house business), daily life gradually, but potently, reveals that the family in residence has suffered an almost unspeakable grief in the loss of matriarch Lillian (played with affecting stoicism by Rhondda Findleton). Left behind is her wife, Ruth, and their four adult children. Although we learned that the kids were once joyously and irreverently close, three have moved on with their lives, while daughter Beth has stayed to help run the business. As Ruth’s milestone birthday and family reunion approaches, Beth makes a mind-blowing discovery that will mark a turning point for everyone and their grief.
Although it is Beth we follow through this interesting tale of grief and the danger of trying too hard to hold the past, the real power here is in director Thomas Wilson-White’s delicate touch in suggesting the quiet agony of facing a death that will leave behind a beloved partner and children (no matter how grown-up). Although there are a few unlikely emotional contrivances — such as Lillian’s request that Beth put her life on hold — many of the moments here are brimming with artful authenticity. One scene in particular, in which Beth wants to photograph Lillian (“because I want pictures of you”) is nothing short of devastating in Beth’s innocence of what is to come and Lillian’s grief for what she will lose.
The other strong suits here are the dialogue and dynamics between the young adults in the present and near-past, which allow the actors to deliver some real connection and wit. Of the siblings, Joel Horwood’s Raf is well played for his quiet integrity, as is Kirsty Marillier’s Doonie, for not over-egging a colorful personality. As brother Drew, Shiv Palekar is charismatic if a bit self-conscious, while Beth’s friend Lauren is delivered with brilliant fragility by Harriet Gordon-Anderson.
When it comes to protagonist Beth, it gets a bit more complicated. Jane Watt is certainly mesmerizing, but there are times when she tips into that Hollywood vibe of chronic mouth-breathing and letting the camera love on a beautiful but expressionless face. She needed a bit more crying drool and Cabbage Patch agony to be believable. Her best moments are often ones where she seems to forget herself and just throws a barb at a sibling.
When it comes to the “portals” and “doorways,” well, Wilson-White is certainly competent, but too much is left unexplained and by the time the siblings are sharing the adventure, we’re in Scooby-Doo territory. It just seems superfluous compared to the genuine emotion here, and it steals time one would rather spend listening to these people poke, spar, and care for each other over nothing more mystical than a kitchen table. —Kate Wingfield
LESS CONCERNED WITH sex than with the many things that can happen alongside, together with, and in place of it, this shorts program celebrates the endless possibilities that live in the ellipsis in its title. Hard (★★★☆☆) opens the program with a casual encounter between two men that is quickly derailed by a bout of performance anxiety. That hiccup becomes a gateway to a deeper intimacy that tenderly unfolds between the two of them. Hard makes its point bluntly, but with remarkable sympathy and gentleness that is helped along by the chemistry of its two actors.
The Washing Machine
Spain’s The Washing Machine (★★★★☆) lightens the mood, telling its own lighthearted story without any dialogue. While doing laundry, a bored young man either imagines or recalls (it’s not immediately clear which) a date that gets steamy almost comically quickly. His imaginative journey through his washing machine’s cycles sets off a series of sexual encounters that become increasingly madcap, eventually culminating in the wildness of the “mix” cycle.
Anyone who’s worked a late shift knows that a late-night walk home can easily double as a journey through one’s own psyche, and Nightender (★★★☆☆) captures that mood with the story of a restless bartender’s night after wrapping up his shift at a cruising bar. With a thoughtfully understated performance by lead actor João Reis Moreira, it is a methodical and meditative portrait of someone lost in their own head as much as they are in the world.
Mes Chéris (★★★★★) artfully brings together documentary and pornography with its frank and thoughtful interview with trans porn star Jamal Phoenix as he discusses his impending mastectomy and the pornographic film he did as a farewell to his breasts. His role in the film happens to be a persona from his past, a Fierce Fem sex worker named Chéri whose scenes with her “titty-lover” client are both visceral and thoughtful.
BOYCAM (★★★☆☆) is a study in contrasts, opening with an outdoor baptism that eventually cuts to its lead showing off on camera, and then to a quiet domestic scene as he wakes his daughter up and gets her ready for school. While this is not a film that cares to provide much of a resolution, it is a deft snapshot of the tension that can exist between family life, faith, and sex work.
Not for the squeamish, the absurdist Pops’ Corn (★★☆☆☆) makes use of porny dialogue and the shock value of seeing sounding rods inserted and played with. Shots of the two younger men deploying the rods while an older man claps along gleefully comprises most of the film’s brief runtime. Whether it titillates or inspires discomfort, Pops’ Corn will at least provoke a single strong reaction given what comes next.
Roadkill (★★★☆☆) steps in as eye bleach of sorts, telling the story of a small-town roadkill collector named Tillie and her encounter with Wanda, a warm yet enigmatic figure she fleetingly crosses paths with. Skillful performances from the two leads give us a window into Tillie and Wanda’s inner worlds as they reckon with their connection and the joy, pain and vulnerability that comes with opening up your heart to another.
Sarah Mary Chadwick “Full Mood” (★★★☆☆) may have a mouthful of a title, but it efficiently presents its ode to gay love in the city over its four-minute runtime. Presented in split-screen, the entire short is brief clips of New York cityscapes, scenes of everyday life, and moments of gay affection, all set to music. Not so much a story as a mood board, it provides this program with a calming, thoughtful sign-off. —Sean Maunier
At one point in Transkids, an Israeli documentary about four teens at various stages of their trans journeys, one of the boys is holding a huge stuffed bear while recovering from surgery. Later in the film, that same boy is discussing his draft notice for the military. The most shocking aspect of Transkids, for American audiences, isn’t going to be the trans subject matter, but what these kids have to deal with in their daily lives in Israel, in addition to their transition.
Directed by Hilla Medalia as a five-part TV special, the series has been edited into a 90-minute feature. The four stories are unsurprisingly similar, with each person coming to terms with their gender identity and embarking on their transition. Medalia was given amazing access to their lives, including a lot of frank talk with doctors, which makes the film’s verisimilitude refreshing and engaging.
There is only one date marker in the film, and that’s the 2016 Miss Southern Israel Beauty Pageant which Romy, the film’s only trans girl, enters. Most of her story focuses on her rehearsal for the pageant as the first trans person to ever compete. Romy’s mother also makes a strong impression as we follow everything she has to do and sacrifice for her daughter as a single parent.
This is contrasted with Noam, who comes from a wealthy family. Noam’s story is mostly seen through the prism of religion and is the one story in which a father speaks on camera, in one of the film’s most shocking exchanges. Noam laughs off his father’s statement (not made in malice, but as a confused parent), but it hangs over the rest of Noam’s narrative now that he identifies as male in a male-dominated religion.
Noam is in the process of having a mastectomy which Ofri, another trans boy, is also going through. Ofri is the most enigmatic of the four, possibly due to what was left on the cutting room floor when converting Transkids from a series into a standalone feature. We see him in a scout’s uniform, but not much is made of this, and his family consists of unidentified female members, all at different stages of acceptance of Ofri’s surgery.
Libron, the last of the kids, has the most compelling story because of how forthcoming he and his family are in their participation, including touching interactions with his brother and grandmother. But he also has the most physically harrowing scene in the film. First seen at a fertility clinic to preserve his eggs before any future irreversible surgeries, the biggest surprise here is that Libron knows when he is having his period through a phone app. Technology, gotta love it. —Cary Wong
GALA Hispanic Theatre
Saturday, Oct. 23, 6 p.m.
Also Available Online
A LINGERING VIEW of a pivotal moment in the lives of a lesbian couple, Two may misjudge its dramatic arc, but it certainly shows director Astar Elkayam is ready for prime time. Skillfully shot, well-casted, and, at times paced with real finesse, this is well on the way to being a polished drama — even if it just can’t quite figure out how to tell the story.
Arriving at the intimate moment in which Bar (Agam Shuster) asks Omer (Mor Polanuer) to have a baby with her, the story unfolds as the women navigate their way through sperm donors and the long haul of getting pregnant. The strength here is Elkayam’s certainty in just how fascinating people are, if you slow down and let the camera read their faces — and in the immersion of the actors, who bring a near docudrama realism to their portrayals. It takes vision and confidence to indulge in such subtle territory and draw suitably committed performances.
The downside to this strong sense of person and place is that it raises the expectation of an equally well-crafted story, and this is where things never quite gel. A lot of plotlines are teased as the pregnancy fails to materialize, and even more so when we discover that Omer has been, and may still be, bisexual.
But these juicy potentials are ignored in favor of the long, almost languorous, focus on the daily moods of the women as they struggle with their respective worries and frustrations over trying to make this family of two into three. As well-designed and compelling as these individual moments are, without a steadily unfolding plot, the film begins to feel trapped in a kind of limbo.
Of course, many art-house films revel in refusing to provide a narrative and that’s all well and good (if you’re up for it). But everything here simply begs for a conventional narrative and when it fails to develop, it’s hard to stay engaged. It’s therefore all the more nonsensical when — in literally the last few minutes of the film — time jumps ahead and a whole boatload of intervening story is revealed. It’s quite a WTF moment and one which confirms a misstep. Either the story is out of whack or — assuming it’s a consciously deployed device — there is no tie-back to a theme or idea. Whatever the plan, it doesn’t work.
Without an infrastructure, it all feels a bit like being back in those group house days when you shared a kitchen with that intense couple who were always emoting or snogging like no one else was in the room. And just like those days, once you move out and on, if you hear the couple has broken up, you can’t muster much more than a shrug. —Kate Wingfield
VALENTINA OPENS WITH its titular character, friends at her side, being forced to out herself to a club bouncer. She shows him an old ID and defiantly says, “That’s me five years ago,” foreshadowing her indomitable resistance to being overpowered by transphobia. Intense to watch but a feel-good coming-of-age story at its core, Valentina offers a poignant and triumphant depiction of the struggles faced by young trans people in Brazil.
Valentina (Thiessa Woinbackk) moves to a small town in the countryside with her protective mother (Guta Stresser) to start anew, where no one will know about her gender identity. Hoping to avoid being bullied at her new school, she tries to enroll under her chosen name, but is told she cannot do so without both her parents’ signatures, even though she is estranged from her father.
Throughout the film, Valentina endures a number of subsequent hurdles — from cyberbullying and conservative ire to harassment and sexual violence. In his feature debut, writer-director Cássio Pereira dos Santos deals with these issues carefully and gracefully. But where the film truly shines is in Valentina’s heartwarming conversations with her mother and the moments in which she has fun and commiserates with her friends, Júlio (Ronaldo Bonafro), who is gay and loving, and Amanda (Letícia Franco), a pregnant computer whiz.
The film’s main drawbacks are that its supporting characters are somewhat underdeveloped and that the narrative is less than optimally cohesive. But, formidable and magnetic, Woinbackk — a trans YouTube star and activist — hits every note in her first major acting role, bringing to life the phrase “representation matters” and allowing you to feel Valentina’s every pain and joy.
When she is called by her chosen name during attendance in the final scene, her victory is your own. And seconds later, heartbreaking words on the screen appear, reminding you that “in Brazil, roughly 82% of trans boys and girls drop out of school” and that their life expectancy is 35. Despite these statistics, Valentina will give you hope for a more just future. —Rudy Malcom
Yes I Am
IN HIS DOCUMENTARY on Ric Weiland, former school chum of Bill Gates and member of the Microsoft gang, director Aaron Bear is trying a bit too hard to be all things to all people. A glimpse of a life cut short by depression, Yes I Am: The Ric Weiland Story begs for depth and introspection. Instead, the focus here is on technique. One minute we have Frontline gravitas; the next, docu-dramatization; and then here comes the art of the unobtrusive interview. Although there are ways to seamlessly integrate such a blend of angles, this is too uneven a ride. And with this emphasis on technique, too many opportunities to dig deeper into this man’s psyche are lost.
Which is not to say that there isn’t skill present. The historical montages providing the context of Mr. Weiland’s world are well-chosen and edited, and we are powerfully reminded of Reagan’s America of the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic, and the evolving story of Gay rights.
Bear does make meaningful time for the close friends and lovers who slow the urgency of the filmmaking to deliver genuine sadness and loss. We may not feel we know Mr. Weiland any better after they tell us that he was a very sweet, if guarded, person, but when the camera lingers — in silence — on their ongoing grief, it is touching. This man may remain unknown to us, but he was loved.
Unfortunately, the film’s integrity is also dampened by the director’s devotion to the use of dramatization. Almost every time we learn something potentially interesting about Mr. Weiland’s inner life, we are treated to a prolonged interlude of a scantily clad actor looking perturbed to the strains of somber techno. Not only does the actor look nothing like Mr. Weiland, you can almost hear the filmmaker yelling, “More staring! More despair! More scribbling!” as the actor puts pen to mock diary. It’s incongruous and breaks the momentum.
And that’s a shame, since Mr. Weiland’s diaries — which are unabashedly plumbed for his demons — offer so many poignant quotes. “I know I lack social skills. Can I still develop them?” “I want to leave this nightmare of loneliness, but I don’t know how.” “Why am I here?” Are these the heartfelt cries of someone with autism spectrum disorder? Is his later profound depression linked to a life spent undiagnosed and misunderstood? These burning questions are never explored, despite the thoughtful comments of those who knew and loved him. As a resume of Mr. Weiland’s life, the film certainly informs, but as a human story, it suggests far more than it explores. —Kate Wingfield
For more information about this year’s festival or to purchase tickets or festival passes, visit https://reelaffirmations.eventive.org/welcome.
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