★★★★ / ★★★★
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.
Summer Storm (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Tobi (Robert Stadlober) and Achim (Kostja Ullmann) had always been close. For Achim, being physical with his best friend was exactly what it was: arms around Tobi meant nothing more than symbol of their comfortable camaraderie. But for Tobi, it was different. He was gay and reluctant to come out of the closet. He kept his sexuality from Achim because he believed that disclosing it would bring their friendship to an end. But when their team, outwardly heterosexual and proud, attended a rowing camp, they met The Queerstrokes (Hanno Koffler, Marlon Kittel, Ludwig Blochberger, Michael Wiesner, Benjamin Vilzmann), a crew team made up of homosexual members. As tension increased between the two groups, Tobi’s true feelings for Achim became more apparent. Based on the screenplay by Thomas Bahmann and Marco Kreuzpaintner, “Sommersturm” was one of the few gay-themed movies that treated sexuality with respect. While there were several lines which expressed homophobia, the story wasn’t really about straight people learning to accept gay people. It was about a gay teen learning to accept himself. What I found interesting was the film didn’t actually show many scenes in which Tobi and Achim shared meaningful moments that reflected true friendship. They were shown as being rowdy and silly but there was not one conversation designed convinced us that no matter what happened, Tobi and Achim were going to remain friends. It was an astute decision by the writers because it allowed us to be as uncertain as Tobi. Although Tobi wanted so badly to hold Achim, kiss him, and make love to him, there was a part of me that understood why maybe it wasn’t the smartest decision to go through with it. The scenes with The Queerstrokes were well done. Each member had a personality. Some were more masculine than others and that caused tension within the group. The best scene was when one of the masculines called out the most feminine for acting like a girl, that his limp wrist was embarrassing to be around with. It was an important and honest scene because it showed that even though we may identify ourselves as being a part of the same community, we are still not above having ugly prejudices toward each other. I admired the way sex was never used as a source of comedy. In here, sex was used a tool for self-discovery. It treated sex and, more importantly, the people who engaged in the act with dignity. The scene of Tobi experiencing his first homosexual encounter was shot beautifully. There was elegance in the way it was filmed: the camera moved with purpose, like an excellent kiss: at first tender and slow then a sudden feverish possession, its lens capturing the sun’s glorious summer rays, creating a fantasy as the music and the characters reached an ecstasy. “Summer Storm,” directed by Marco Kreuzpaintner, was a wonderful and a personal favorite LGBT coming-of-age film because it was in touch with its rawest, most painful emotions about unrequited love from others and from self. Its ultimate message was if you can’t accept who you are, how can you be strong enough to find love, the kind that is passionate, lasting and true, in others?
★★ / ★★★★
Russ (Tom Cullen) was a gay man with mostly straight friends. After attending his best friend’s party, Russ decided to go to a gay club with hopes of hooking up with a stranger. After attempting to make eye contact with several men as a signal he was willing, Russ eventually encountered Glen (Chris New). Morning came and the two engaged in their first real conversation over coffee. They liked each other enough and thought what they had was worth exploring. But, initially without Russ’ knowledge, Glen was supposed to head to Oregon after the weekend and live there for two years to study art. They now had to make a decision whether their one night stand was viable enough to turn into a relationship. Written and directed by Andrew Haigh, “Weekend” could easily, even understandably, appeal to those craving for realistic stories about gay lifestyles. There’s just not that many of them. Great ones are rarer still. The casting was good given that neither looked like a chiseled Adonis. In fact, their appeal was in embedded in the ordinariness of their looks. In return, we were forced to look within–their personalities, motivations, and perception of the world. Given that neither looked like a steroid-obsessed, stereotypically dominant beefcake or a stick-skinny twink, the sex scenes, mostly unnecessary, held a certain honesty: the unshaven corners, fat hanging about the torso, and wrinkles unhidden by make-up. Having the camera so up close to their bodies and faces, we could easily get the sense that the two had just had sex. Like in reality, the morning after is usually far from glamorous. Most of the time, you just want to jump in the shower to wash the night away. However, despite my best efforts, I felt no spark between Russ and Glen. It was critical because they were supposed to be increasingly attracted to one another over the course of the film. The reasons why they wanted to take their relationship on another level weren’t at all clear. Glen was condescending to Russ. He was repulsed by the fact that Russ didn’t like to kiss or hold hands in public as heterosexual couples generously often do. Because of this, he was convinced that Russ was not comfortable with being a homosexual. I was extremely annoyed with what he represented because he felt it was his prerogative as an out and proud gay man to constantly remind people that he was gay. To him, being ostentatiously gay was tantamount to being comfortable with his sexuality. No, it’s not. It means you’re being obnoxious. In the end, Russ subtly accepts that ideology. The supposedly sweet ending left a bitter taste on my lips. It sends the wrong message to audiences, especially to LGBT youths who are still deciding how they want to live their lives. Furthermore, the constant usage of drugs was an issue I had due to its mixed messages. I found it ironic that the two men were supposed to be connecting with one another through sex and deep conversation while snorting cocaine and smoking marijuana. How can you really get to know someone while being under the influence? All the discordant factors and hypocritical implications made me feel angry. While I understood Russ’ loneliness and the dangerous lengths he would go to assuage that emotion, the rest lacked practicality. It’s a shame because I do have friends like Russ who engage in casual sex with strangers and experiment with all sorts of drugs. The film implies that such a lifestyle is A-OK. It’s certainly not okay when you hear news that your friend has contracted HIV or died from overdose.
★★★ / ★★★★
Dora Carrington (Emma Thompson), a talented painter, fell in love with Lytton Strachey (Jonathan Pryce), a homosexual writer, during World War I. Throughout the years, their relationship, as friends and as lovers, was challenged as men dropped in and out of their lives. Based on a novel by Michael Holroyd and directed by Christopher Hampton, “Carrington” was a thoughtful examination of the complexity of sexuality and how our love toward a person can rise above the conventions of sexual orientation. It was easy to label Carrington as a fool. After all, people who cared about her, like her fiancé (Rufus Sewell) in the beginning of the film, had informed her that Lytton was attracted to men. She perfectly knew that Lytton was a homosexual but her feelings for him were simply too strong to resist. We cared about Carrington because she was brave. She perfectly knew that living with Lytton would be different than living with other men but she was at peace with her decision. Thompson did a wonderful job in establishing a character who knew what she wanted but still leaving a bit of room for her to doubt and to feel fear in terms of where her life was going. She communicated plenty with a glance across the dinner table or an awkward silence between two friends. When Carrington and Lytton moved in together, sex was one of the main issues they had to deal with. They circumvented the problem by welcoming each other to see other people. The more comedic scenes involved Lytton urging Carrington to lose her virginity to her fiancé with whom she’s been together for four years. I loved how the film felt controlled. It was mature in its approach about sex but it still retained some level of humor. For instance, there was a scene or two where Carrington just had to lie on the bed, completely detached from the act, while the man was all about his pleasure. That’s usually indicative of a doomed relationship. When Ralph Partridge (Steven Waddington), a soldier, ended up living with Carrington and Lytton, there was an understated tension among the three. Lytton was attracted to Ralph but Ralph was attracted to women. Carrington was stuck in the middle. It was when Lytton realized that Carrington had something he could never have. As our protagonist saw other men that ranged from the overly sensitive (Samuel West) to the emotionally distant (Jeremy Northam), the more she realized she was destined to be with the writer. One of the most moving scenes in the film was when Carrington, sitting alone in the garden, looked inside their house and saw people she loved having someone next to them. “Carrington” elegantly posed questions about love and its many definitions. The film was unusual but it was beautiful, too.
Totally F***ed Up (1993)
★★ / ★★★★
Gregg Araki’s “Totally F***ed Up” focused on six homosexual teenagers and how they responded to the every day challenges of being young in Los Angeles. Andy (James Duval) was a lonely virgin but, unlike most of his friends, he treasured that aspect of himself. When he met the charismatic Ian (Alan Boyce), Andy seemed to fall in love for the first time. Michele (Susan Behshid) and Patricia (Jenee Gill) were in a relationship and they wanted to have a baby despite the fact that they would not be able to support it. In one of the film’s most jaw-dropping scenes, they gathered their gay friends’ sperm to perform “artificial insemination.” Tommy (Roko Belic) abhorred gay stereotypes. He was proud with being a masculine homosexual but his parents weren’t aware of his sexuality. Lastly, Steven (Gilbert Luna) and Deric (Lance May) were also in a relationship. One had to deal with gay bashing while the other wrestled with guilt because he had sexual intercourse with another man. Despite the film having a number of great ideas, I was not convinced that Araki had successfully explored what made each character tick. In order for an ensemble to be effective, each subject has to be fully or close to fully realized. We knew that the group of friends in question liked to nap all day, party all night, and try all sorts of drugs in order to remind themselves they were still alive. But what else was there to them? The reason why they were friends in the first place wasn’t clear to me. Surely their friendship was based on something deeper than carnal and chemical pleasures. I didn’t feel like they could depend on each other because they were too preoccupied looking out for themselves. I hope the writer-director didn’t mean to imply that LGBT friendships were shallow and unrewarding. There were far too many scenes of teenagers “doing bad things” so their redeeming factors were overshadowed by their habits. I also wanted to know more about the protagonists’ life at home and their relationships (or lack thereof) with their parents or siblings. I was most interested in the characters when they started to talk about their home lives and why they felt like they needed to move away and seek solace with other strangers. They looked at the camera and talked about the hateful heteronormative society but they failed to offer any deep or unique insight about what LGBT teens at that specific time period had to go through. In the end, their struggles felt far away instead of prevalent regardless of one’s sexuality. “Totally F***ed Up” wanted to go in so many different directions that it ended up not going anywhere. Although it managed to capture the loneliness of youth in some parts, the scenes designed for mere shock value turned this film into a run-of-the-mill, independently-made urban teen drama.
The Hanging Garden (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
William (Chris Leavins) returned to his hometown for his sister’s wedding (Kerry Fox) after leaving without a word and not visiting for ten years. William used to be an obese teen with a low self-esteem. His father’s (Peter MacNeill) expectations, if not met, often led to physical abuse while his mother (Seana McKenna) kept herself at bay. What I found so effective about the film was the situations that the characters had to deal with were as realistic as possible but there were some bizarre elements that forced us to think about the possible reasons behind the odd images thrown on our laps. For example, in the first scene, it was amusing and refreshing to see people who attended the wedding as bored and impatient, maybe even angry and stressed, during the ceremony. It was a familiar feeling but it was nice to see that on screen because it was a complete opposite from movies that showcase weddings as always exciting and fun. It’s not fun when you’re forced to sit in silence for about an hour. You look forward to the food and perhaps the bottomless wine (if you’re lucky). Then the realism was countered with fantastic elements. That is, there was an alternative universe in which William hung himself in the garden where the wedding occurred. The characters were able to see William as an obese (as he was in the past) dead teen. They were able to touch him, cry in front of him, miss him. William was able to see and grieve for his former self, too. Perhaps it was a metaphor for the lost time William didn’t get to share with his family and vice-versa. Maybe the family felt that the William that returned was not the William that left them. The William that they knew wasn’t skinny, confident, and strong. He was weak, insecure, fat. William tried to forget his past but his family kept holding on to it. There was another strand in the plot which involved William’s homosexuality and love for his best friend (Joel S. Keller). Coincidentally, Fletcher, William’s best friend, married William’s sister. The sister was aware of her husband’s possible bisexuality but she didn’t seem to mind. In fact, it was almost as if she encouraged her brother and husband to get together. Most would probably label her as having a liberal perspective, but I think her actions were more meaningful than what was shown. I thought she had a deep understanding of the pain and trauma her brother went through when they were young. She felt that her brother needed and deserved some sort of closure. Written and directed by Thom Fitzgerald, “The Hanging Garden” was a simple but beautiful film about two worlds moving away from each other and the tension building from the divide. Some characters were given little time to develop but I was surprised they were complex regardless.
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.