Queer Films to Look Out For from LA's Outfest (Virtual This Year)

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday August 29, 2020

Queer Films to Look Out For from LA's Outfest (Virtual This Year)

OutFest outdid itself this year boasting some of the best queer content in a while. The virtual experience took nothing away from the quality of the features, docs and shorts. But the Fest also included OutFest LA's "Under the Stars," a drive-in experience that took place at the Calamigos Ranch in Malibu, where the Festival hosted a series of drive-in screenings. There were many other special events.

The 2020 OutFest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival, presented by WarnerMedia, runs virtually from August 20-30.

Here are some of the highlights:

"The Obituary of Tunde Johnson" (Centerpiece)

The best in a Fest that featured some of the most thought-provoking LGBTQ selections in years, "The Obituary of Tunde Johnson" premiered at TIFF last year and why it wasn't immediately picked up by a distributor is confounding. Actually, the confounding narrative is probably the answer but the film, exceptionally directed by Ali LeRoi and deftly and densely written by Stanley Kalu, is a singular achievement that demands repeated viewings (I'm on my third). This highly ambitious, audacious work is never what it seems... to the very end. Sure, a facile description might include references to "Groundhog Day" or an over-emphasis on the political but what the film attempts is far deeper and more extraordinary, beginning with what black men must deal with on a day to day basis — add gay, and the experience is magnified.

Tunde, a Nigerian born college student from a well-off, loving and supportive family lives the same day over and over, each ending in his being shot (in different scenarios) by the L.A. police. Tunde (Steven Silver) is having a secret romance with hot jock, Soren (Spencer Neville) who is sleeping with his best friend, Marley (Nicola Peltz). All three actors do incredible work. Yes, the film tackles racism, homophobia and class, but, at its core, is the personal story of one teen on cusp of manhood. The creatives are going for something sublime here and they masterfully (and deliberately messily) achieve that goal.

"Dramarama"

Jonathan Wysocki's feature debut "Dramatama" is an impressive and wholly engaging peek into the world of a group of California theatre-nerd friends about to leave for college in 1994. The writer-director takes a dialogue-heavy script and finds the perfect visual style so things never feel stagey or flat. And he's penned intelligent, articulate, relatable teens who may be geeky and repressed but are also on the cusp of certain realizations. The sextet of young actors all shine with Nico Greetham especially tuned-in to the nuances of portraying that one teen we all knew (or were) who discovers he's gay long after his friends have. I love the idea that these teens are immersed in queer culture without having any true awareness of it. And the film and theatre reference rock. It's "Breakfast Club" meets "Big Chill" with some "Boys in the Band" tossed in! "Dramarama" is the queer sleeper of OutFest.

"Cicada"

A film deserving of repeated viewings, Matt Fifer and Kieran Mulcare's extraordinarily film, "Cicada," is a stirring portrait of a bisexual man (Fifer) who tosses himself into meaningless and sometimes anonymous sexual encounters until he decides to confront his damaging demons. He meets a closeted black man (Sheldon D. Brown). With the Sandusky trial looming in the background, this rich, nuanced work delves deep into psychological dissection and emerges triumphant. Fifer is a filmic force to be reckoned with. His script is dense and honest and his performance, fearless. One of the best indies of the year.

"Shiva Baby" Centerpiece

Emma Seligman's deviously delightful "Shiva Baby," is set almost entirely at a shiva (the seven-day mourning period in the Jewish faith taking place at the home of the deceased) and manages to be sweepingly cinematic and passive-aggressively familiar to anyone who's ever felt uncomfortable at a family gathering. Seligman has a way with sifting the real from the stereotype and getting into the skin of people who need to impress when they're around relations. Rachel Sennott and Molly Gordon are especially good as on-again/off-again lovers and Polly Draper deserves awards attention for her amusing yet keen embodiment of the Jewish mother.


"T11 Incomplete"

Suzanne Guacci's loving exploration of the many gray areas in life, "T11 Incomplete," is even more extraordinary on a second viewing. The central love story is daring in the sense that we don't often see two women of different generations fall in love onscreen and when one of those women is physically disabled—well, that is rare. This exquisite film is anchored by a remarkable performance by Karen Sillas who plays an imperfect middle-aged woman who's past (and present) mistakes continue to hurt the people in her life. But she strives to be better — to do better — and, even in failure, is seen as redeemable. Guacci's film is a call for empathy and forgiveness. And we need that now, more than ever.

"The Strong Ones"

Omar Zúñiga Hidalgo's first feature, "Los Fuertes (The Strong Ones)," is a sexy gay love story where the chemistry between the two leads, Samuel González and Antonio Altamirano, is so palpable, you can't not root for them. Alas, the two young Chilean men are from different worlds and neither seem willing nor wanting to compromise. Set in a remote oceanic town in southern Chile, "The Strong Ones," probes the smoldering passion but also the deep connection made by two guys who are feeling out who they are who they want to be. I can't recommend this gem enough. In Spanish with English subtitles.

"Monsoon" Centerpiece

Henry Golding ("Crazy Rich Asians") is the best reason for watching Hong Khaou's evocative "Monsoon." He plays Kit, a man who returns to Vietnam for the first time in decades after escaping, with his mother, while the war was still raging. His journey is deeply personal and Golding delivers a lovely, understated turn, subtly exposing his conflicting feelings. The film explores Kit's relationship with three very different people during the course of the slight narrative, that relies more on minutiae than anything truly dramatic. Khaou is to be commended for the bracingly casual way Kit's sexual encounters are depicted.

"Lily Tomlin: The Film Behind the Show"

"What is reality? Nothing but a collective hunch." Trudy in "Search for Signs"

"The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," Lily Tomlin's one-person tour de force, masterfully penned by her partner, Jane Wagner, opened on Broadway in 1985 to stellar reviews, numerous awards and sold-out audiences. The play ran for a year and was then revived in 2000. (It was also faithfully adapted into a film in 1991.) Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill followed Lily and Jane around in their pre-Broadway tryout and captured a lot of the process that went into the show's creation. Now, newly restored, this 1986 film feels just as timely as it did back in the mid-80s and shows just how little progress we've made as a country and a people. But Lily and Jane are forever optimists and the power of the piece is palpable.

"The Capote Tapes"

Truman Capote was a singular figure of the 20th Century. He was a celebrated author whose groundbreaking work included "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "In Cold Blood." He was openly gay at a time when no one else dared be in his work ("Other Voices, Other Rooms, 1948) and his life. And he was a high society mover and shaker whose infamous masquerade ball became legend. He was also a troubled, damaged person who died at 59. Ebs Burnough's "The Capote Tapes" probes the life and work of this enigmatic celebrity in an attempt to discover some psychological truths. Capote remains a mystery but the doc delves pretty deep via a series of audiotape recordings where George Plimpton interviews his friends and foes.

"Three Chords and a Lie"

Brandon Stansell is a country music singer. He's also an out gay man. Historically, these are two extremely divergent things. There are certainly many gay/bi country artists but none are out. And those few who chose to come out have never been embraced by Nashville, nor have they spoken as honestly and bravely as Stansell does in Trent Atkinson's moving doc, "Three Chords and a Lie." Structured around the rising star's hometown (Chattanooga) concert return, Stansell opens up about his estranged relationship with his family and the industry's homophobia. By the time he sings the powerful and heartfelt, "Hurt People," you'll be ready for some Kleenex.

"Gossamer Folds"

Director Lisa Donato and screenwriter Bridget Flanery explore what a true family is (or should be) in the deeply affecting, "Gossamer Folds." It's Kansas City in 1986 and forever-curious 10-year-old Tate (Jackson Robert Scott) and his parents (Sprague Grayden & Shane West) have moved to the suburbs and next door to a black trans woman, Gossamer (Alexandra Grey) and her father (Franklin Ojeda Smith). The married couple seem to be locked in perpetual discord so Tate spends most of his time next door. What follows is a poignant story about friendship, family, love and survival. Grey and Scott excel in their respective roles but it is Smith who touches us most as a loving dad doing his best in an ever-changing world.

"P.S. Burn This Letter Please"

The discovery of a box of letters in a storage unit in 2014 by filmmakers Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera led to a treasure trove of letters to and from DJ and talent agent Reno Martin that documented the world of a group of drag queens in the 1950s and early '60s. Via these precious artifacts, "P.S. Burn This Letter Please" provides an illuminating portrait of what life was like for these queer people pre-Stonewall, when the art of female impersonation as well as homosexuality itself were still criminal offenses. The film shines an important light into a part of LGBTQ history that has been disregarded.

"Ask Any Buddy"

What is "Ask Any Buddy?" Or more importantly, is "Ask Any Buddy" a doc you want to see? If non-linear, vintage gay erotica is your thing OR you simply want to get a sense of pre-AIDS gay porn OR you want to delight in a slice of queer culture, give this a looksee. Evan Purcell, the film's director, has graduated from his popular Instagram postings to assembling a host of scenes from 126 gay porn releases that span from the late '60s to the mid-80s. This is his personal tribute to men and sex and the gay aesthetic. And it's a fascinating sit.

Also worthwhile

"Minyan"

Eric Steel's mesmerizing film, "Minyan," set in 1986, centers on a teen coming to terms with his attraction to men amidst the backdrop of the Russian Jewish world of Brighton Beach. Repression, homophobia, assimilation, deception and survival are just some of the lofty themes tackled. Samuel H. Levine (Broadway's "The Inheritance") plays the lead and shows true cinematic promise. There's great heft to this story but the ending lacks a proper punch.

"No Hard Feelings (Futur Drei)"

Faraz Shariat's absorbing three-person character study, "No Hard Feelings," examines notions of identity, sexual, ethnic and geographic. Parvis (Benjamin Radjaipour) is a wildly out queer Iranian living in Germany. While performing community service at a refugee shelter, he encounters Amon (Eidin Jalali), a deeply closeted gay living with his older sister, Banafshe (Banafshe Hourmazdi), who is in danger of being deported. All three hit it off and struggle with their respective demons. Shariat's style is impressive. Kudos for showing us something rarely seen in gay films: a proud bottom.

Cured

It's been less than 50 years since the American Psychiatric Association decided to finally remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. Bennett Singer and Patrick Sammon's engaging documentary, "Cured," chronicles this vital movement towards LGBTQ equality when a small group of true queer heroes challenged the patriarchy and proved victorious. And in a nod to irony, one of the most homophobic opponents turned out to have a gay son.

"Cowboys"

Anna Kerrigan's thoughtful and sometimes exasperating feature, "Cowboys" examines childhood gender identity with great sensitivity and, in non-binary actor Sasha Knight's superb performance, allows the audience a peek into the conflicts faced by a transgender pre-teen. Steve Zahn is to be commended for his terrific portrayal of the 11-year-old's understanding and protective father. The film falters with some of its contrived plot twists but is worth a look for Knight and Zahn's touching turns.


Boys Shorts

Finally, the 10 best shorts I viewed:

"Dreaming Like Louis" (Dir: Valentin Merz Tanoren), "How To Say I Love You at Night" (Andree Ljutica), "See You Soon" (Tyler Rabinowitz), "Bliss is Orange" (Jenna Kanell), "Query" (Sophie Kargman), "Last Summer with Uncle Ira" (Gary Jaffe and Katie Ennis), "Our Place Together (Clay Marshall Pruitt) "Muy Gay Too Mexicano" (Lorenza Lourenco), "Meta" (Sydne Horton) and "The Shawl" (Sara Kiener)


For more on Outfest, visit the festival's website.

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He is also a proud Dramatists Guild member and a recipient of a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship. He was awarded a 2015 Fellowship Award from the NJ State Council on the Arts, the 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and the Chesley/Bumbalo Foundation Playwright Award for his play Consent, which was also a 2012 semifinalist for the O'Neill. His play, Vatican Falls, took part in the 2017 Planet Connections Festivity and Frank was nominated for Outstanding Playwriting. Lured was a semifinalist for the 2018 O'Neill and received a 2018 Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Grant. Lured will premiere in 2018 in NYC and 2019 in Rome, Italy. LuredThePlay.com

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