Bilal Hasna in"Layla." Dylan O'Brien in "Ponyboi." Source: IMDb

What Were the Best Queer Films @ Sundance 2024?

Frank J. Avella READ TIME: 13 MIN.

Last year's Sundance Film Festival featured a number of major queer titles that would gain acclaim, including William Oldroyd's "Eileen," Ira Sachs' "Passages," Sebastián Silva's "Rotting in the Sun," Emanuele Crialese's "L'Immensità," Roger Ross Williams's "Cassandro," Saim Sadiq's "Joyland" (Pakistan's shortlisted Oscar submission), Vuk Lungulov-Klotz's "Mutt," Molly Gordon's "Theater Camp," D. Smith's "Kokomo City," and Lisa Cortés's "Little Richard: I Am Everything,"

This year's crop of queer offerings may not exceed that list in terms of quality and the potential for critical and commercial appeal, but there were several noteworthy LGBTQ+ titles that screened.

I want to note that I covered the Festival remotely, so some of the most celebrated films were not made available to those journos who were not "on the ground" at Sundance.

The films I did not have access to include the queer-themed "Love Lies Bleeding" with Kristin Stewart, "Megan Parks' My Old Ass," "I Saw the TV Glow," and "Will & Harper," as well as "A Different Man" with Sebastian Stan, "Freaky Tales" with Pedro Pascal, "The American Society of Magical Negroes," "The Outrun" with Saoirse Ronan and Paapa Essiedu, Steven Soderbergh's "Presence," and Richard Linklater's "Hit Man," starring Glen Powell – to name just a few. It was a true shame to have not been allowed to see these titles.

Here is a list of the best of the LGBTQ+-themed films I did see:


Finnish-British filmmaker Mikko Mäkelä's first feature, "A Moment in the Reeds," made quite a splash a few years ago and was nominated for a British Independent Film Award. His followup, "Sebastian," takes his work to the next level. The film centers on Max (Ruaridh Mollica, beyond impressive), a 25-year-old writer who freelances for a magazine, studies for his master's at university, writes short stories, and is working on a novel! The latter has led him to sex work using the name "Sebastian." His desire to achieve total authenticity in his writing leads him down a fascinating path towards an exploration of identity and queer sexuality. Embracing complexity and nuance, Mäkelä sets forth a nerve-inducing narrative that rarely veers into the expected, instead choosing a more exciting, sex-positive route. Jonathan Hyde (Ismay in James Cameron's "Titanic") is quite lovely and poignant as an older gay man who Max turns to for both comfort and knowledge. Mollica is quite a find, beautiful and beguiling. His is a fearless, star-making performance in a most assured sophomore effort that is easily the best queer film at the Fest.


Pedro Freire makes an auspicious feature film debut with "Malu," a most stirring and wholly believable depiction of past family trauma and how it manifests generationally. Yara de Novaes is magnetic as the titular character, who is constantly looking back to her past when her gen was fighting for rights and she was triumphing onstage. Malu has quite the volatile relationship with her rancorous mother Lili (a wonderful Juliana Carneiro), as well as her caring daughter (Carol Duarte). Lili does not appreciate the close bond Malu shares with her queer friend Tibira (Átila Bee), who Lili thinks is straight. Based on Freire's real mother's life, "Malu" is a truly absorbing look at the complexities of fucked-up familial connections.

'Stress Positions'

Trans filmmaker Theda Hammel's directorial debut, "Stress Positions," is a clever and original entry in the COVID-themed cinema genre with a satiric, queer twist. The film centers on Terry Goon (a wonderful John Early) who is quarantined in his randy ex's Brooklyn brownstone, looking after his ridiculously sexy Moroccan model nephew, Bahlul (gorgeous real-life model Qaher Harhash) – who has a definite queer lean. Many more crazy characters populate this madcap comedy, including the director stealing scenes as Carla, a wackadoodle in a questionable relationship with a lesbian, and Rebecca F. Wright as one of the strangest neighbors to ever grace the indie screen. Almost every character in "Stress Positions" turns out to have some queer bent, and the film also takes on many current themes (immigration, sexual identity, angsty millennials vs. hopeful but sensitive Gen Zers). It may just sometimes skim the surface, but it's also highly entertaining and has much to say about how silly we all tend to behave.


Esteban Arango's sophomore feature, "Ponyboi," is written by and stars River Gallo in quite an impressive debut in both artistic arenas (expanded from Gallo's 2019 short film), and boasts a fierce turn by Dylan O'Brien ("Teen Wolf"). It's Valentine's Day in New Jersey, and intersex sex worker Ponyboi (Gallo) gets embroiled in a drug deal gone cuckoo thanks to his skeeze of a pimp/lover, Vinny (O'Brien). This film is "The Sopranos"-meets-zany comedy caper, with some Tarantino on the side. I found it refreshing to see an LGBTQ+-themed film that didn't feel the need to follow certain rules about how queer people are supposed to behave. "Ponyboi" is a spirited, emotionally complex ride.

'How to Have Sex'

Brit filmmaker Molly Manning Walker takes on the complications of teen sex, consent, and friendship in her frank, penetrating film "How to Have Sex." You might initially get the feeling you're watching a typical Spring Break movie as besties Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce), Skye (Lara Peake), and Em (Enva Lewis) land in the coastal town of Malia in Crete, Greece, for a sexually-charged, alcohol-infused holiday. Tara is the virgin of the trio. Skye is the more experienced. Em likes girls. Tara meets Badger (Shaun Thomas) and crushes on him, but it's Badger's horndog friend Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) that ends up having sex with Tara on a beach. But was it consensual? The next day, in her bed, something similar happens, only it's obvious she did not consent. Winner of the Un Certain Regard Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, "How to Have Sex" authentically captures the painful, complicated, and confusing aspects of trauma.


"I think everything that gives pleasure is good" – Frida Kahlo

There have been many takes on the life of Frida Kahlo on stage, screen, and TV (including Julie Taymor's film starring Salma Hayek), but what makes Carla Gutiérrez's doc "Frida" so compelling and exceptional is that it is entirely told through the artist's own words via her diary, as well as revealing letters, essays, and print interviews. In addition, the vivid and vibrant animation, inspired by her art, also sets it apart, and we are able to appreciate Kahlo's work, pain, art, sexual appetite, and life philosophies in a brand-new way.

'In the Land of Brothers'

Raha Amirfazli & Alireza Ghasemi's first feature, "In the Land of Brothers," has literally been life-changing for them. Rather than compromise their stories to receive a stamp of approval from the Iranian government, they chose to "remain steadfast to the authenticity of the story". Consequently, the filmmakers now live in New York and Paris, respectively.

The film is broken into three chapters, each a decade apart, telling the stirring story of an extended Afghan family forced to seek refuge in Iran. The first segment has a queer theme, although that isn't mentioned in any press notes. It centers on teenage Mohammad (Mohammad Hosseini), who is targeted by a predatory officer. There is an element of nuanced attraction between the two, until there isn't. I realize the filmmaker's focus was strictly on the Afghani refugees' plight, but some attention could have been paid to why the officer behaved the way he did. The film is, otherwise, exemplary.

'In the Summers'

Buoyed by a powerful performance from music artist René Pérez Joglar (known as Residente), Alessandra Lacorazza's "In the Summers" delves into the complex relationship between a highly intelligent, volatile, addict father, Vicente, and his two very different daughters. Vincente favors the more booksmart Violeta, who is attracted to girls, while the younger Eva is often overlooked or belittled. The film, which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize as well as Best Director Award, has very little narrative to speak of, and meanders a bit much, but is beautifully filmed, and Joglar keeps things fascinating.

'Desire Lines'

Jules Rosskam's hybrid doc/fiction, "Desire Lines," is a mesmerizing peek into a taboo world. Set against a fictional present where an Iranian-American trans man (Aden Hakimi) goes back in time to figure out his own sexual desires, the film investigates sexual identity at odds with expected sexual orientation, juxtaposing real female-to-male gay men telling their stories with how their desires came under fire within their own community. Theo Germaine co-stars in this erotic feature.


Amrou Al-Kadhi shows great directorial promise with "Layla," about an Arab drag queen struggling with who they are vs. who they want to be. Bilal Hasna shines as the title character, and Louis Greatorex is beyond charming as their seemingly perfect beau, Max. It's great to see a multi-faceted drag queen at the center of a film, but the problem with "Layla" is Max – not the actor, who is terrific, but the trajectory of the character, who appears to have been created simply so he can behave in the obvious manner necessary for Layla to achieve their empowerment. More nuance and a less facile story arc would have made "Layla" so much more than just another polemic about self-acceptance.

'Between the Temples'

In Addition...

In addition to the above queer-themed titles, I would like the cite the following films as worthwhile (some with queer icons featured).

Easily one of the best films of this year's fest, the magnificently odd "Between the Temples" is a showcase for the brilliantly gifted Carol Kane, who plays a former music teacher who decides she wants to be bat mitzvah'd. The wonderful cast includes Jason Schwartzman, Caroline Aaron, and Dolly De Leon.

A Black artist must deal with past trauma in Titus Kaphar's exquisite work "Exhibiting Forgiveness." André Holland and John Earl Jelks are extraordinary as an estranged son and father, and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor delivers another astonishing, awards-worthy turn as a conflicted mother trying desperately to help bridge that gap.

Jesse Eisenberg's contemplative film "A Real Pain" is about two very dissimilar cousins (Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin) who travel to Poland to honor their beloved Holocaust survivor grandmother. Culkin delivers his best screen performance to date, and Eisenberg is shockingly restrained.

Bao Nguyen's "The Greatest Night in Pop" flashes back to January 28, 1985, when music history was made and some of the titans of the industry came together to record the iconic single "We Are the World" to raise money for Ethiopians dying of hunger. The doc is a captivating account of that momentous event, where Lionel Ritchie, Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Bob Dylan, and a host of other superstars were asked by Quincy Jones, via a written sign, to "check your ego at the door."


Sean Wang's "Dìdi "(弟弟) is a semiautobiographical coming-of-age dramedy about a 13-year-old Taiwanese-American boy on the cusp of high school. The film won the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award, and is an absolute delight. The fabulous Joan Chen is excellent as the boy's mom.

Josh Margolin's "Thelma" centers on a 93-year-old who gets phone scammed and goes on a revenge quest. Oscar nominee June Squibb is delightful as the titular character, and Fred Hechinger excels as her loving grandson.

In Richard Peppiatt energetic and arresting "Kneecap," Irish rap band members Liam Óg Ó hAnnaidh, Naoise Ó Cairealláin, and JJ Ó Dochartaigh (a.k.a. Mo Chara, Móglaí Bap, and DJ Próvaí) play themselves in spectacular fashion, and Michael Fassbender kills as a revolutionary dad in post-Troubles Belfast.

by Frank J. Avella

Frank J. Avella is a proud EDGE and Awards Daily contributor. He serves as the GALECA Industry Liaison and is a Member of the New York Film Critics Online. His award-winning short film, FIG JAM, has shown in Festivals worldwide ( Frank's screenplays have won numerous awards in 17 countries. Recently produced plays include LURED & VATICAL FALLS, both O'Neill semifinalists. He is currently working on a highly personal project, FROCI, about the queer Italian/Italian-American experience. He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild.

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