★★★★ / ★★★★
Alike (Adepero Oduye), a Brooklyn-based high school student with ambition and drive, occasionally snuck out with Laura (Pernell Walker), her best friend, to spend time in lesbian-themed clubs to make hooking up with other girls much easier. However, Alike’s devoutly religious parents (Kim Wayans, Charles Parnell) weren’t aware of their daughter’s attraction toward other women, so Alike had to lie and change clothes before going to the club and stepping inside the house. Word travelled fast and soon enough, the parents began to suspect that perhaps there was a pinch of truth in hearsay. Written and directed by Dee Rees, “Pariah” was painfully honest in its approach of what it was like to lead a second life outside of the home without relying on easy emotions, like pity, to make Alike’s situation more digestible for the audience. The picture was proactive in showing us that while Alike was capable of making mistakes like any other person, gay or straight, who was growing up, her strength was dependent upon the fact that she knew who she was and that there was nothing wrong with her being attracted to women. Because Alike had such a strong sense of self, the material had a chance to hone in on those who wrestled with gnawing suspicions and Alike’s eventual admission. But this wasn’t to suggest that the picture utilized the coming out scene as its center. I liked the way the parents were not showcased as ignoramuses when it came to their child’s life. By avoiding that tired cliché, it was already one step ahead of its peers. Audrey was the kind of parent who took the word of the Bible as an absolute. We may not agree with her position and some of us may detest her for it, but people like her do exist. I’ve had gay and lesbian friends in high school who were kicked out of their homes because their parents wouldn’t accept them from the way they interpreted certain passages in that book. Some of my friends were even forced to attend certain institutions to “cure” their homosexuality to no avail. Arthur, on the other hand, was a parent so in denial, he’d rather dance around the issue than just ask if his daughter was gay. He was a part of the police force and for someone who valued pithiness and truth, it was ironic that something as trivial as sexuality was the kind of thing that he couldn’t face head-on. The film astutely showed that such a type of an approach could potentially be as damaging as directly saying that one’s sexual identity was not unacceptable in a particular household. Under Rees’ direction, the theme of disconnect involving the relationship among mother, father, and daughter was highlighted in subtle but powerful ways. I guess having been able to identify with Alike’s experiences, there were times when a parent’s look communicated a thousand words. I hate to admit it but those small yet precious moments could potentially go undetected under the observation of those outside the LGBT community. For me, those moments were what made the film felt so real and why I had such a gut reaction to it. It’s difficult to make LGBT movies because most of them tend to use melodrama as an excuse to avoid more complex emotional and psychological explorations. “Pariah” is a shining exception. While it had lessons to impart about self-esteem and self-acceptance, telling a story through a specific perspective was its most remarkable achievement.
Making Love (1982)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Zach (Michael Ontkean) and Claire (Kate Jackson) had been married ever since they were twenty-two. Zach, a physician, and Claire, a television producer, shared a lot of things in common: they enjoyed listening to the same music, watching the same classic movies, and discussing things that bothered them whether it be about work or each other. But Zach had a secret which eventually led Claire to suspect that he was having an affair with another woman. As it turned out, Zach was seeing another man named Bart (Harry Hamlin), a novelist whose hobby consisted of picking up nightly tricks. “Making Love,” written by Barry Sandler and A. Scott Berg, treated its characters with respect. Zach and Claire’s very close bond could easily have been syrupy and annoying, but we slowly learned not only how much they valued each other but why. Since the picture took the time to examine both sides, I felt that their relationship was real. The stakes were high for these two people because their relationship was rooted in deep friendship. We all knew that there had to be a point in which Zach would finally gather up the courage to tell his wife that he was a homosexual. However, the drama did not rest on that one significant scene. The rising action provided the necessary details and different angles so we were able to see ourselves, regardless of our own sexual orientation, in Zach, Claire, and Bart. Furthermore, it was unexpected that Zach’s affair with Bart wasn’t shot in a romantic way. Instead, their scenes together felt more like a rite of passage, something that had to be done in order to explore the picture’s more important themes. We observed the way the two men met, flirted with one another, shared drinks, had sex, and separated. Even though the two saw each other multiple times, there was nothing romantic about their secret meetings because it was established early on that Bart, despite his best efforts, just wasn’t the kind of man who loved the idea of settling down. Being a novelist, he felt the constant need to have his own space. Zach was the exact opposite; he almost wanted a male version of Claire. With each scene where Bart treated Zach dismissively, I was more convinced that it wasn’t going to work out between them. However, the impressive thing was, it was difficult to detest Bart and his actions because I was able to sympathize with his issues as a child, especially his relationship with his father, and I respected, as well as shared, his pride in being single. I was glad no one was treated as a villain–that the material was honest in portraying the three characters as people who were capable of insightful thoughts, smartly dealing with negative emotions, finding a way to move on, and thrive. “Making Love,” directed by Arthur Hiller, was, at its worst, melodramatic at times but, at its best, quite moving and raw, especially when Claire tried so badly to understand why she didn’t see that her husband harbored feelings for other men. Most coming out movies almost always show the pain solely from the perspective of the gay person. I admired the film because, in real life, there is also pain and initial feelings of betrayal felt by those who heard the news.
★★★ / ★★★★
Oliver (Ewan McGregor) was still mourning over his father’s death when he met Anna (Mélanie Laurent) at a costume party, who couldn’t speak at the time due to laryngitis, an actress who was always on the move. Through her, he hoped to determine his place in terms of making a genuine, stable commitment with another person. Along with grief, Oliver felt confusion. His father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), at seventy-five, came out as a gay man right after his wife died. He claimed that he didn’t just want to be “theoretically gay” and he wanted to do something about it. So, he posted an ad and met Andy (Goran Visnjic), a younger man who was able to give Hal happiness for four great years. “Beginners,” written and directed by Mike Mills, seamlessly jumped back and forth between life and death, father and son. Oliver and Hal’s relationship, though sad and somewhat strained, was fascinating to observe. Not once did we get to hear them say, “I love you” to one another yet we felt that unspoken sentiment through their actions. It may come off that Oliver was a bit repelled by his father’s homosexuality. Regardless whether it be the truth or not, I was convinced that he respected his dad. Hal was, essentially, a prisoner his entire life. He was a prisoner of the times and his sexuality before he came out. When he did, he was still a prisoner because he almost immediately learned that he had a tumor in his lungs and that it had metastasized. What I loved about him was the fact that he didn’t allow himself to be a victim. He was a fighter. He faced difficulties with optimism. He didn’t allow the disease to limit who he was. I could look in his eyes and feel that he thought he deserved happiness. Not even his own son, an adult, could get in the way of that. And it shouldn’t. Most of the picture’s source of comedy was Hal telling his son about his adventures like how much fun he had at a gay club. But telling stories over the phone or in person was different than being physically included. When surrounded by gay men, Oliver almost distanced himself. His discomfort was apparent. There were several scenes that involved Oliver’s childhood and his relationship with his mom (Mary Page Keller). He valued the idea of his mother and father being together even though he, as a child, felt like there was something wrong in the marriage. The idea and the fears that came with it was probably why he consistently had trouble staying in a relationship. Unlike his father, I got the impression that he, subconsciously, felt like he didn’t deserve happiness. But he does. He just needed to let go of the rules, relax, and live his life the way he wanted to. He was a product of an American society that characterized itself as having one “right” answer, one “right” way to live. “Beginners” had a defined theme which was adaptation: Hal’s sexuality and cancer, Oliver’s sense of self-worth, and even Arthur, Oliver’s dog that can telepathically communicate, getting used to his new owner. Touching but never too heavy or suffocating, it was able to impart valuable lessons for both young and old.
Touch of Pink (2004)
★ / ★★★★
Alim (Jimi Mistry) came from a conservative Islamic background so he moved to London from Canada in order to live the life he wanted. He enjoyed spending time with Giles (Kris Holden-Ried), his boyfriend, watching Cary Grant’s movies, and interacting with his favorite actors’ spirit (Kyle MacLachlan, with a ridiculous fake British accent) whenever he needed advice on how to proceed with life. When his mother (Suleka Mathew) decided to visit, he found himself scrambling on his way back to the closet. I found “Touch of Pink” to be an excruciatingly one-dimensional picture filled with dispiriting clichés. Alim was very unlikable because all he ever thought about was himself. Yes, without a doubt, coming out of the closet is difficult and often a painful experience, but I kept waiting for Alim to step up and be a man. He was around thirty years of age but he acted like someone who just turned thirteen. I knew teenagers who came up with better ways of telling their parents they were gay than Alim did. I’m not Muslim but, as a person of color, I couldn’t help but be offended with the script. I understand that the film was a comedy but a joke directed toward a culture becomes something else entirely when the material can’t move beyond it. For instance, the movie painted Muslims as people who only cared about marrying off their children to someone who was rich and successful career-wise. In every single scene, the adults kept trying to compare their worth. Life is simply not like that. I’ve met a number of Muslims and not many of them were like the ones portrayed here. They can be as sensitive and insightful as you and me. Don’t get me wrong, I support all sorts of observations and critiques regarding race, religion, class, and age. Where would we be if we can’t make fun of ourselves and each other? However, there must always be a certain level of respect between the critic and its subjects. I sensed no respect here. Written and directed by Ian Iqbal Rashid, the majority of the material needed to be rewritten and revised. Coming out stories can be amusing when the right elements are put together. But this film was mostly about the punchlines and less about the characters who were conflicted about their feelings toward homosexuality and each other. The director should have injected some substance in the main character and let him realize that coming out to his mother was painful for her, too. Most of the time, coming out of the closet isn’t just about the person revealing something to the world. If it was, coming out stories wouldn’t be as compelling or touching. Other complex issues come into play such as family expectations, lost friendships, and the experiencing the world in comfortable shoes.
La Mission (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Peter Bratt, “La mission” told the story of the way a hypermasculine ex-convict (Benjamin Bratt) dealt with reality when he found out that his son (Jeremy Ray Valdez) was gay and had been going out with another guy (Max Rosenak). I liked that the movie managed to capture how painful it was to reluctantly come out of the closet but the movie took it one step further and begged the question of whether love really was unconditional. I easily identified with the intense scene when the son was trapped in a corner and he had no choice but to admit to his father about his lifestyle, all the while completely aware that his father would not take the news lightly. Something similar happened to me not that long ago and watching that scene made me tear up and I found myself feeling the need to pause the movie and walk around the house a bit. I thought the picture had an elegance in the way it handled the scenes where the father took his son back into their home but the father did whatever it took to avoid dealing with the situation. Since he had a violent past and a history with alcoholism, which still haunted him, I rarely agreed with his style of parenting. However, it was almost always clear to me that he cared about his son. He just did not know any other way to deal with his problems. Bratt’s acting was key because he then had to maneuver between holding onto his past and trying to deal with his son’s sexuality. I thought he did an excellent job because I managed to empathize with him despite his many unquestionably bad decisions. Instead of watching the movie through the eyes of the person coming out of the closet, we had a chance to see it through the person dealing with the news. I thought it was a refreshing perspective but it was sometimes difficult to sit through because I experienced his hatred as if that hatred was directed to me. I also liked the romance that developed between the father and the neighbor (Erika Alexander) who worked at a women’s shelter. I liked that she, too, was tough when she needed to, but she had control over her toughness which was completely unlike the man who was interested in her. But just when I thought I knew exactly where the story was heading, the movie surprised me once again and reminded me that there wasn’t such a thing as someone changing over night. It requires effort and sometimes slipping back into one’s habits when things looked very dim. “La mission” had many elements going for it but the most that stood out to me was its honesty. It was honest with its characters and their complex psychologies, the neighborhood in San Francisco where the story took place and, most importantly, it was honest with its audiences. Despite its difficult and sometimes painful subject matter, it treated us with intelligence.
★★★ / ★★★★
“Fire” is the first Indian film that explicity depicted acts of homosexuality (specifically lesbians) on film and that alone deserves recognition. From beginning to end, I was interested in the picture because Shabana Azmi is often torn between what she wants to do for herself and her duties as a wife and a woman. Nandita Das finds out that her husband (Javed Jaffrey) is having an affair and that inner turmoil that she experiences lead to her discovery about what she really wants in life. Azmi and Das’ initial common bond was unhappiness which quickly evolved into something more. Even though this film is stripped down due to its limited budget, the writing is pretty powerful. It manages to use flashbacks, folk stories and comedy in order maintain the film’s focus. Those three elements were used to elucidate the literal and symbolic meanings of fire; why it can be a friend or an enemy, how it can make one feel so alive or exiled. Whenever Azmi and Das interacted, I could feel their passion and yearning to break away from society’s norms but at the same time hold on to what they have. Their affair does not stay hidden for long so they are forced to choose between unhappy familiarity and exciting uncertainty. I was also impressed with this movie because it was honest in its portrayal of homosexuality. Deepa Mehta, the writer and director, was careful about molding the lives of the main characters; she makes her characters rise above being lesbians and actually lead lives that are otherwise normal and traditional. I thought the most powerful scenes were saved in the last twenty minutes. When it was over, I understood what the title really meant. A lot of people might dismiss this film for being too slow or being too depressing or actively defying the traditional Indian culture. I can only agree with the last bit but that’s a good thing because it offers something new. It goes to show that homosexuality exists across cultures and it shouldn’t be taboo.
★★★★ / ★★★★
I have a weakness for characters who desperately try to keep their families together, especially when they go as far as to sacrifice their own hopes and dreams. Zach, played expertly by Trevor Wright, is that kind of character and I loved him the minute he appeared on screen. Wright plays Zach with such charisma and complexity. I felt like Zach could indeed be a real person: a surfer who genuinely loves his dysfunctional family and wants to pursue his talent for the arts but can’t quite do so because of pecuniary issues… who happens to be gay, instead of the other way around (which what separates this from most LGBT films). There are many memorable scenes but I’m not going to mention them all. But I do want to express how much some scenes affected me. The one scene when Jackson Wurth (who plays Zach’s cute little nephew) revealed that he sees Wright as his father instead of his uncle says a lot about how much Wright acts a parental figure in Wurth’s life. As much as Wright tries to clarify Wurth’s thinking, it’s all for naught because his actions speak louder than his words. Another stand-out scene was when Wright was driving back home in the morning after he and Brad Rowe finally got together. In the car, when Wright finally smiled (he’s so good at playing depressed, I didn’t know he knew how to smile), the camera caught glimpses of light penetrating through the clouds as they hit Wright’s face. That scene, with a little bit of luck, was done so perfectly, it defined the whole film: little pockets of light amidst a Sahara of sorrow.
All of the side characters are very memorable because they contribute to the main character’s already simmering inner conflict. Rowe, who added a much-needed warmth to the story, wants to be with Wright but Wright is not out of the closet. When Rowe tries to kiss him or even merely touch him in a public area, Wright would be so beyond scared/irked. Wright and Rowe’s chemistry is undeniably sexy. On the other hand, I wanted to punch Tina Holmes’ character in the face because she puts herself and other potential husbands in front of her son. But Holmes is a smart actress for putting subtleties in her performance so her character is not viewed as a complete monster. I loved her interactions with Wright because even though their characters are siblings, there’s this awkwardness to the whole thing because all she ever does is ask favors and keep her brother from spreading his wings. Katie Walder as Wright’s girlfriend sometimes breaks my heart because he’s so miserable around her even though all she wants to do is keep him happy. But sometimes it’s just plain hilarious because Wright has this look annoyed/disgusted look on his face whenever Walder tries to kiss him. Ross Thomas as Wright’s best friend is probably the only (deceptively) one-dimensional character because, in pretty much every scene, all he does is either drink beer or surf. I would’ve liked him to have had a bigger role because he is, after all, the best friend.
This is one of the best gay-themed movies I’ve seen in a while because every element worked. If one was to watch this closely, I’d say take notice of the use of color and symbolism to reach a deeper understanding of Wright’s character. It’s so refreshing to see a lead gay character who is not into fashion or going clubbing or money/shopping at all (not to mention no one died of AIDS, no cross-dressing, no suicide attempts). I can relate to Zach because he really is a serious person; I wanted to scream for him because Zach is so trapped due to the expectations of his family and of himself. He endures each hardship with such composure, and when he finally breaks I seriously wanted to cry. If this does become a cult film amongst the LGBT community, I wouldn’t be surprised.