Tag: lgbtq

Uncle Frank


Uncle Frank (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Writer-director Alan Ball makes a curious decision to tell this story through the eyes of an eighteen-year-old girl even though the heart of the picture is a gay man who yearns acceptance from his southern, religious, and deeply conservative family. But it is the correct choice because early on in the picture, the man, Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), is able to give the then fourteen-year-old, Beth (Sophia Lillis), something that his own immediate family couldn’t or wouldn’t give: wings—the encouragement necessary to become whatever it is she wants to become or be. Beth is who Frank might have become had his father (Stephen Root) loved him without condition.

Although “Uncle Frank” does not push the LGBTQIA+ sub-genre in new directions, it is able to hit enough fresh notes to be amusing, dramatic, and heartfelt. In particular, I enjoyed Lillis’ clear-eyed performance as a young woman who is intelligent, strong, enthusiastic, always open to new experiences and lifestyles. But it doesn’t mean she isn’t naive; she is—Beth, after all, hails from a sheltered bubble in South Carolina. It is 1973: the majority of the town is white, right-leaning, and the word of God is considered law. Homosexuals can be arrested for being. People of color are met with certain glances and whispers. Beth, an avid reader just like Uncle Frank the associate professor, belongs in New York City. She is a freshman in NYU.

When the picture is focused on showing how Beth perceives the world around her, its puissance is undeniable. She is a fast-learner. Those eyes are alert, hungry. A strange detail or a secret is an opportunity to widen her world view. Especially amusing is when she comes for a surprise visit to Uncle Frank’s while he and his live-in partner named Wally (Peter Macdissi), who is an Arab, host a party. We can almost feel Beth’s mind exploding due to the diversity of the guests (their skin color, creed, and sexuality), the alcohol, the drugs, the joy of being unshackled from the usual rules of niceties of middle-of-nowhere, SC.

But the story must focus on Uncle Frank eventually. Although still interesting, it is less strong by comparison. I felt for Frank constantly chasing for his father’s approval. He may be a man in his 40s who has found his stride in The Big Apple but when he is back to his childhood home, he feels as small and powerless as he did when he was a boy. Not only does Daddy Mac treat Frank as the black sheep of the family, Frank is the black sheep carrying the plague. The father’s hatred for his son’s homosexuality inspires rage and deep sadness.

However, in the latter half, we also get flashbacks of Frank’s first love as a teenager and the tragedy that occurred. In the middle of it, I wondered if it might have been the wiser choice to allow the characters, namely Frank and his niece, to talk to each other about what exactly happened—allow us as listeners to paint images in our minds just as one would when reading a novel. The dialogue and chemistry among the performers, after all, are strong. Jumping from the present to the past then back again distracts more than illuminates on occasion. The approach is too busy in a movie like this, one that thrives in relaxed pacing and overall presentation.

A case can be made that the past is so traumatic for Frank that to excavate the past by means of flashbacks might have been inappropriate. These flashbacks, however, are innocent and beautiful, particularly sequences shot in and around the lake. It is like an old painting: the yellow-dominant color scheme is so warm, it inspires a smile on the viewer’s face. I thought about my childhood when I used to hunt for bugs amongst the tall grass, underneath logs and rocks.

Edge of Seventeen


Edge of Seventeen (1998)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Edge of Seventeen” continues where standard coming-out-of-the-closet comedy-dramas usually end which makes this picture, written by Todd Stephens and directed by David Moreton, an instant standout in the sub-genre. Too many LGBTQIA+ movies, especially those designed for mainstream consumption, are forgettable precisely because they end up following the same parabola while reaching alarmingly familiar conclusions. It is rare when a film like “Edge of Seventeen” comes along for it has courage to tell you that coming out to your family and friends does not magically turn your life around. It provides the possibility that things can get messier and more complicated—which is okay because adapting to change takes time. It is more interested in presenting reality than providing a false sense of security.

The story revolves around Eric (Chris Stafford), a soon-to-be senior in high school who gets a summer job at a theme park in food service. There, he meets Rod (Andersen Gabrych), an Ohio State University student who seems genuinely interested in getting to know Eric. Although the screenplay underscores the attraction felt by the two men, this is no ordinary romance. The feelings are real, but the writing proves sharp in that for there to be convincing drama, the two must be separated. Otherwise, the story becomes about the couple rather than Eric who struggles with self-acceptance. The presence of the Rod character is solely meant to jolt Eric’s latent homosexuality. It is beautifully done, quite elegant and unexpected. And it is right.

Another insight the writing provides is that there is a crucial difference between coming out and accepting one’s sexuality. Coming out can be easy, for some. But looking inside—really checking in, asking questions, and being honest—that’s far more challenging. It poses the question: How can one so easily accept being different—being gay—when society trains you to believe that being different, odd, strange—queer—is inferior to being “normal”? How can you fit in when the standard—the expectation—is heterosexuality and heteronormativity? I loved how this film is about ideas first rather than comic strip situations that characters find themselves in then having them react.

Notice how the film takes the time to show conversations—no score or soundtrack playing in the background—that look, sound, and feel real. Standouts are exchanges between Eric and his mother (Stephanie McVay): how he shares with her a song he’s been working on, what she thinks about it, and if she regrets dropping out of college (she studied music) in order to start a family. We also spend ample of time with Eric and his best friend Maggie (Tina Holmes), who is obviously attracted to him. We see them being called names at school, at parties, and other social gatherings. And we also see why. They don’t dress or act or try to force themselves to get along with their peers. We get a sense that they’re outcasts even before they’re called freaks. Naturally, this friendship is tested when Maggie learns about Eric’s secret. I appreciated how it goes in unexpected and occasionally painful directions. I appreciated its honesty in suggesting that sometimes even the strongest friendships are unable to weather certain storms.

“Edge of Seventeen” is not for viewers who are 1) looking to feel good about themselves and 2) unwilling to go delve deeply in what the filmmakers are actually communicating about the realities of being gay and coming out. The story, like life, is left in an open-ended manner. It trusts us to evaluate where Eric’s relationships might end up based on the knowledge we’ve acquired throughout our time with them. Ultimately, I found optimism in Eric’s story even though it is more bitter than sweet. Eric is only seventeen. He has so much more to experience. Why box him into a defined ending just so we can feel good? The astute and penetrating filmmakers really thought about what they wished to accomplish—and it shows.

But I’m a Cheerleader


But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jamie Babbit’s uproariously funny “But I’m a Cheerleader” is a satire of conversion therapy programs and the idea that sexuality—a trait that is genetically hardwired—can be altered or fixed “if you just try hard enough.” What makes it special is that although humor is painted with broad strokes at times, stereotypes coming hard and fast, it has bite: it does not shy away from the cold fact that this pseudoscientific practice is ineffective, harmful, and inhumane. One minute you’re laughing and the next you’re horrified by some of the things loved ones say to their sons, daughters, friends. They claim to love their gay son or lesbian daughter. But reality is that their love is not unconditional.

This is not the kind of LGBTQIA+ picture that is prudish with its subjects’ sexuality. On the contrary, what’s fresh about it is that its images are so over-the-top, some of the jokes fly right over your head because there are instances where you sort sit back and absorb what had just been shown or said. It is meant to shock and overwhelm, as if its purpose is to make up for the collective American culture’s longstanding history of homosexual repression. I admired it most when the movie is clearly angry, livid, just underneath its playfulness.

An early example involves our protagonist, Megan (Natasha Lyonne), coming home after school to find out that her parents, her friends (Michelle Williams), and her boyfriend (Brandt Wille) have conspired to send her to True Directions, a two-month, five-step program for heterosexuality led by Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty). The humor comes in the form of why Megan’s inner circle feels Megan might very well be a lesbian: her vegetarianism, posters of women in her bedroom and locker, the fact that she does not enjoy making out with her boyfriend. But something chilling: Nobody bothers to ask Megan whether she wants to attend the program or how she feels about the idea. She is forced to do so because others feel the need to have her corrected. She must be corrected or else they do not want her to be in their heteronormative lives.

The picture is criticized for its stereotypes, particularly its portrayal of the “campers.” I think those who see weakness within this aspect of the film have missed the point. (My issue is with its throwaway ending; its vision is so original for the majority of its running time that surely we deserve a more daring final few minutes.) The movie is a satire and so exaggeration is one of the tools that can and, I think, should be employed to get the point across. Some of the male homosexuals are shown to be feminine in a hyperbolic way (example: nasal voice, hanging wrists, being terrible at sports, and the like). But that’s the point.

Because in True Directions, males’ feminine behavior (and in turn females’ masculine behavior) must be eradicated, erased. And then they must be taught “traditional” behaviors (men are strong so they should be able to chop wood; women are dainty so they must excel at housework). There is no room for political correctness in effective satires. To do so is an act of removing teeth from material that should have a harsh bite. I would even go as far to say that satires—good ones—should be offensive. Because if a satirical work doesn’t offend anyone, then who is the movie for? More importantly, who or what is the movie against? What is its stance?

Notice that although the material makes fun of everyone on screen—yes, even the campers—the screenplay by Brian Wayne Peterson shows a real love for its young subjects. It allows them to talk to one another in comic and tender ways—sometimes deeply; it is willing to show their sexual desires; the hurt they feel someone calls them “dyke” or “faggot,” especially their parents; the relief that takes over them when a person accepts them for who they are rather than their masks. This is not a comedy without a soul or a brain. Behind the chuckles and laughter are truths that everyone call relate with, gay or straight. And that is why “But I’m a Cheerleader” has gained a cult following—and will continue to do so for many decades to come.

Disobedience


Disobedience (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

So few films are able to show with crystal clear quality what they are about at just the perfect moment when their respective stories are about to enter their resolutions. In Sebastián Lelio’s visually spare but contextually elegant “Disobedience,” the scene involves an embrace with no words shared or tears shed, just a common understanding among those involved that life goes on and that sometimes we can choose to be in control of the challenges that befall us. The work is beautiful, occasionally heart-wrenching, and surprisingly hopeful—and it always underlines the humanity of those we meet.

Rachel Weisz plays a professional photographer, Ronit, who returns to her Jewish Orthodox community when her father, a beloved London-based rabbi, passes way. Given that Ronit has been shunned by her community for being a lesbian, it is made apparent her presence is not welcome but one to be endured because she is blood of the deceased. Notice the director’s control of the camera as strangers make a laundry list of judgment as they lay eyes on Ronit. It is no accident that numerous sequences involve entering and exiting rooms filled with people as public and private spheres are brought under the magnifying glass.

In a story like this, it would have been far easier to point at a religion and condemn its practices by, for example, exposing its hypocrisies, underscoring its limitations when it comes to exercising one’s personal freedom, or highlighting the moral inconsistencies that result from attempting to live a life based on a book that was written hundreds or thousands of years ago without taking into account how life or lifestyles have changed over time. Instead, the film chooses to respect the religion in question not by ignoring how it can hurt others but by providing a character so complex that by the end I wished to know more about him.

Alessandro Nivola portrays Dovid, the main disciple of the fallen rabbi. He is married to Esti (Rachel McAdams), the woman whom Ronit got involved with romantically, certainly sexually, many years ago. Instead of treating Dovid as clueless, the screenplay by Sebastián Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz allows him to evolve. We assume that just because he is a man of faith and continually shows that he values faith above all else, his capacity for feeling or understanding is limited. Nivola plays Dovid with a surprisingly healthy dose of humanity that even when he is at his headstrong, we understand his perspective, why he feels he must fight for what he believes is true—not just because he is pious man but also because he is a husband who genuinely loves his wife. Love can be devastating sometimes.

And so the material takes on several new layers which involves partnership, ownership, and patriarchy. Particularly telling is a scene that takes place at a dinner table with Ronit, Esti, Dovid, along with friends and family of a certain age. Nearly every line is a reminder that Ronit is an outcast not just because she is a lesbian, an unmarried woman for her age, or a daughter who did not stay to take care of her ailing father. No, there is a common understanding she is less than because of her gender. Even the women at that table—even when they choose to be silent—support the notion that men are a tier above.

Based on the novel by Naomi Alderman, “Disobedience” is teeming with information—should one decide to examine it. Its austere look, particularly in how it avoids showing bright colors or employing an ostentatious score or soundtrack, may quickly bore those looking for a traditional form of entertainment. But these are appropriate, you see, because the film is meant to be melancholy, ruminative, a chance to empathize with people who feel imprisoned by their religious communities. The film is about freedom and it reminds us how we take our own freedoms for granted.

Love is Strange


Love is Strange (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) decide to get married after being together for thirty-nine years. But after the bishop learns about the union, George is fired from his job as a music teacher in St. Grace, claiming that he has defied the Christian Wellness Statement—a document he signed when he got the job decades ago. Rent is expensive in New York City and so the couple decide to sell their apartment and seek help from friends who might be willing to house them temporarily.

“Love is Strange” is a movie that is easy to like in concept but one that is difficult to admire in execution. Molina and Lithgow turn in wonderful performances but there are too many distracting and rather pointless subplots that could have been eliminated to make room for more interactions between the two lead characters. Although one might argue that the separation of the couple is the point of the story, their individual situations ought to have been equally interesting or engaging.

Ben gets to stay with his nephew’s family. We are supposed to notice that the family is not very close. The parents (Darren E. Burrows, Marisa Tomei) are so involved in their work that it seems as though every little thing serves only to distract them. They are barely even able to look at one another in bed. The teenage son (Charlie Tahan), meanwhile, becomes increasingly irate because of the new living situation.

The screenplay by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias fails to turn the family into one that is accessible and warm even for just a few instances. The contrast between the relationship of this family versus what Ben and George have is so heavy that it does not leave us the opportunity to simply absorb who these people are. In other words, they function too much as tools of the plot. Stories like this yearn to be told organically, painting the relationships among people with complex humanity.

The same observation is observed with George’s living situation. Although the material is right to focus on the character feeling out of place rather than judging a younger gay couple’s generation and lifestyle, we barely spend time in that apartment. We learn that the couple George is staying with likes to have people over and that is about it.

Lithgow and Molina play their characters as whole people. I always make a point that I have to be able to imagine a character’s history for me to completely believe that who I am watching is worth learning more about. Here, the two actors need not communicate with words. Take a look at the first scene when Ben gets out of the shower and George simply greets his partner with a smile instead of having to say, “Good morning.”

Not once do they say, “I love you” to one another either. Their feelings for one another are almost instinctual; they need not communicate or explain what they already know exactly because they have known each other for four decades. On this level, the picture is able to go above and beyond my expectations.

“Love is Strange,” directed by Ira Sachs, ends in a genuinely moving way. It is rare to see teenagers cry in movies where we are convinced they are really hurting. We watch from a respectful distance: we do not see his face or his tears. We hear his stifled sobs and notice him struggling to regain his composure before stepping out of the building. We feel that he has learned something of value—one that he can take with him for rest of his life.

Floating Skyscrapers


Floating Skyscrapers (2013)
★ / ★★★★

Kuba (Mateusz Banasiuk), training as a swimmer for a decade and a half, meets Michal (Bartosz Gelner) outside a gallery and two share a joint. There is certainly a romantic connection there but it just so happens that Kuba has a girlfriend, Sylwia (Marta Nieradkiewicz), and they are living together. Eventually, Sylwia catches on what might be going on between the two men but she cares for Kuba too much to let go so easily.

“Floating Skyscrapers,” directed by Tomasz Woszczynski, is so lacking in energy that it never gets a real chance to become an interesting drama. There are plenty of shots of geometric figures, people sitting around saying nothing and naked bodies in bed, but the emotion the picture manages to capture is monotone, bordering on soporific. It is an LGBTQ dramatic film that fails to appeal to anybody outside of the community.

The three lead performers are physically attractive but there is nothing particularly poignant about their characters. The central plot revolves around the two men wanting to be together while everyone else disapproves. There is a hint of social commentary about the Polish culture’s current attitude toward homosexuality but it is not expounded upon in a rich and rewarding manner. The subplot is typical and expected: Kuba and Michal coming out to their families and we observe how the parents respond. The same subplot have been done in similar pictures and much more effectively.

There is only one scene that is executed just right. It involves Kuba, Sylvia, and Michal sharing a meal. Each of them knows exactly what is going on with whom but not one bothers to bring up the source of each of their frustrations. We have all been in a situation like this. It is awkward and uncomfortable—the scene perfectly captures Sylwia’s seething animosity, Michael’s embarrassment, and Kuba’s disbelief that his two lovers are in the same room and breathing the same air.

The ending is a severe miscalculation which underlines the weakness of Tomasz Woszczynski and Tomasz Wasilewski’s screenplay. For all the three characters’ misery, they—and the audience—deserves an answer as to what might happen among them. Instead, the movie simply ends just when it is becoming interesting for having presented game changers that might alter the rest of the principal characters’ lives.

“Plynace wiezowce” need not be colorful or even vibrant to be worthy of our time. However, it is expected, as in any other movie, that themes be ironed out without having to revert to old-fashioned treatment of gays and lesbians on film. The writers should have strived to make the characters fresh to the point where we are curious about them despite the love triangle. This is neither a modern nor a forward-thinking film.

Giant Little Ones


Giant Little Ones (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Keith Behrman’s “Giant Littles Ones” is not a reductive LGBTQ picture in which the main character simply learns to come to terms with his sexuality by the end of the story. While it does end on a hopeful note, the messages it imparts—about teenage sexuality, friendships, romantic feelings, and even one’s relationship with parents—are far more nuanced than mainstream films that just so happen to have queer elements in them. It is effective precisely because the characters we meet are specific, layered, and flawed. And, like real people, they do not always express what they feel or think even when situations demand that they do.

The main conflict sprouts from two best friends, Franky and Ballas (Josh Wiggins, Darren Mann), who engage in a sexual activity. The latter feels so guilty about it afterwards that he chooses to tell his girlfriend (Kiana Madeira) a lie that inevitably goes around school. The former, on the other hand, does not consider what occurred to be embarrassing or something to feel ashamed about. For the majority of the picture we observe Franky and Ballas’ friendship crumble at first in small ways then in significant ways just as suddenly. Great tension builds as the two formerly inseparable teenagers, both clearly hurt by the snowballing turn of events, learn to find and forge their own paths.

There are times when the screenplay is so sharp that we become convinced that the friendship is possibly forever broken. Yes, we see intense homophobia, ugly words, and violence, but there is a constant message that sometimes a friendship must die in order to give rise to new, healthier ones. Some are played for laughs, like Franky’s connection with Mouse (Niamh Wilson), a classmate who tends to dress in what is considered to be masculine clothes—in addition to wearing a strap-on or tube socks beneath her jeans in order to create the illusion that she has a penis. Not once is she labeled as transgender. It is refreshing; it fits the theme surrounding the teenagers attempting to find themselves.

Others are shown under the light of great sadness. I was particularly moved by Natasha (Taylor Hickson), Ballas’ younger sister, who has a reputation at school for being promiscuous. Derogatory names are written on her locker. Ballas, although a popular athlete respected by his peers, never comes to her aid or to provide emotional support—not even at home. We see her drink alcohol as if it were water; there is a detached look in her eyes. Her parents, although they mean well, seem to be unaware of how incredibly sad and lonely she is. But Natasha is not at all incapable recognizing when somebody needs someone to talk to, to lend a helping hand. Her conversations with Franky are standouts because the words and feelings they share sound and feel real. There are instances when silence communicates more than enough.

The most compelling performance on screen is delivered by Kyle MacLachlan, Franky’s gay father who lives with man. We are reminded more than once that Ray is an observer who has more than a handful of things to say—he wants to protect his son so desperately—but must restrain because his relationship with his family is precarious. For one, his former wife (Maria Bello) still feels betrayed for having married a woman who turns out to be attracted to other men. (Notice it is rare for the two to make eye contact.) Secondly, Franky, too, disapproves that his father is gay. Or perhaps not. Maybe it is because he feels abandoned due to Ray choosing live with someone else and lead a non-traditional lifestyle. Or that maybe he feels such a close connection to his mother that he, too, feels her feelings of betrayal. Or maybe it is all of these things. Therein lies the strength of this film: it is complicated, messy, painful, and real.

The writer-director makes the correct decision to leave the story on a satisfying note without succumbing to the pressure of solving every conflict in a way that is neat or proper. It is not a straightforward coming out story like “Love, Simon” but the two would make a strong double feature because they are so different—in look, mood, feeling, the characters we come across—that they beg to be compared side-by-side.

More discerning viewers, however, would recognize that, in a way, they complement one another. Both contain beautiful details. In this film, for instance, a genuine moment of connection occurs between father and son in a walk-in closet—the father just outside of it and the son standing inside wearing blazer—a gift from Ray—that might as well be a suit of armor.

Out in the Dark


Out in the Dark (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Here is an LGBTQ film that aims to tell a story from a specific perspective, not just offering yet another typical love story that hits the expected sweet spots which then paves the way toward a doorway of happily ever after. Instead, it aims to show aching truths and confounding realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how the deeply-rooted strife affects the every day lives of those who happen to come across love.

Co-writers Yael Shafrir and Michael Mayer, the latter directing the picture, tells the story through a fresh lens and provides voice to a difficult and sensitive subject. In the middle of the story that commands a quiet power, I wondered why we are not provided more stories like this in the west. By putting a face on numerous assumptions and impressions we hear from the news and politicians, perhaps then we would care more about specific conflicts in the Middle East, especially ordinary people who simply wish to get on with their lives. Despite the film’s shortcomings, such as moments of melodrama with family members and ill-paced chases, its angle remains exciting until the final image.

Palestinian graduate student Nimr (Nicholas Jacob) and Israeli lawyer Roy (Michael Aloni) share wonderful, immediately believable chemistry. There is seemingly minimal effort in how the performers interact, whether they are sharing drinks at a bar amongst queer friends or the two of them just hanging out in the apartment. It is in how Jacob and Aloni look at one another in the eyes, perfectly capturing that particular manner of regarding someone from moment of chance meeting until a couple of weeks of getting to know each other—like every moment is to be savored, relished, memorized.

This romantic approach provides the audience a strong core, something to hold onto, to root for, as seemingly unstoppable external forces, like being forced out of the closet by the Israeli Secret Service and complications with one’s student visa, gather even more power to crush the newly established relationship that we grow to cherish and hope to see grow and evolve. I admired that the picture abstains from providing quick and easy solutions to complex problems; even by the end we are left hanging with a handful of questions. However, we do not feel cheated by its denouement because although problems remain, the tone implies hope.

“Out in the Dark” is uninterested in taking sides or placing blame. Rather, it takes a humanistic approach by creating a portrait of those caught in the crossfire of judgment, threats, and violence. Notice its ability to balance romantic elements with gritty, uncompromising situations often found in suspense-thrillers. These extremes, to my biggest surprise, fit together quite beautifully here. It is exciting to think about the possible stories writer-director Michael Mayer has yet to tell. He’s one to watch.

Absent


Absent (2011)
★ / ★★★★

Martín (Javier De Pietro) hurts his eye during swimming class so his coach, Sebastián (Carlos Echevarría), drives him to the doctor. It seems to be only a minor irritation so the teenager is discharged. By the time Martín and Sebastián finish at the hospital, however, everyone has gone home. This is a problem because Martín is supposed to spend the night at a classmate’s house—who did not bother to wait—and his grandmother has already left town. Martín is not given a spare key. After a few hours of exhausting avenues to get rid of the student, it seems as though Sebastián has no choice but to allow Martín to stay in his apartment. Unbeknownst to Sebastián, this is all a part of Martín’s plan so they can be alone.

Written and directed by Marco Berger, “Ausente” is a very confused movie about an adolescent attraction toward someone twice as old and eventual feelings of guilt that surface. It lacks a bridge between the two extremes and so the internal and external conflicts fail to translate in a way that is moving or, at the very least, sensible.

We are supposed to have an understanding of Martín’s attraction to his coach, but he is made to be a master manipulator until well past the halfway point. While De Pietro is strong at exuding a mix of menace and sexual desire with his glances to the point where we can almost feel like his eyes are undressing his victim, his capacity for darkness is not what the film is ultimately about so it is curious why the writer-director spends so much time making him out to be someone he is not. It is confused tonally because the story is a drama at its core but it utilizes thriller elements to capture our interest. As a result, the conflict between Martín and Sebastián appears phony.

The film seems unable to discern between true sensuality and cheap sexuality. For example, when the coach finally invites his student over to his place, as the material attempts to build attention through the neighbors’ prying eyes, there are a handful of shots of Martín’s body parts, from his groin area to his buttocks. If the goal is to titillate, which is fine, it is not handled in a way that feels right to the material. The fact that the student is underage is always in the back of our minds. It is neither sexy nor seductive. It is creepy.

After an awkward night, never mind that the material does not go in any interesting direction. It fails to take off completely. There are at least half a dozen wasted scenes where Sebastián and Martín eye each other from across the room and we are made to wait and wonder whether the screenplay has something else up its sleeve. Since we do not know the two main characters as people, the twists and realizations feel nothing but creaky machinations of a plot that is desperate to end but does not know how.

The problem in experimenting with different genres is that it is easy to create an imbalance with the ingredients. “Absent” tries to do something different but since key elements do not complement each other, it meanders well past the point where we stopped caring.

Grande école


Grande école (2004)
★ / ★★★★

Paul (Gregori Baquet) has been accepted to a prestigious school which has a reputation of training graduates that become highly successful. Though his decision to room with two other guys, Louis-Arnault (Jocelyn Quivrin) and Chouquet (Arthur Jugnot), over Agnès (Alice Taglioni), his girlfriend, seems practical initially, perhaps there is another reason. Agnès suspects that Paul is attracted to Louis-Arnault. Though he denies it intensely, Agnès proposes a bizarre bet: if she beds the roommate first, Paul must stop his attraction to men; if Paul beds his roommate first, Agnès will leave the relationship in peace.

Though “Grande école,” written for the screen by Robert Salis and Jean-Marie Besset, is not just another LGBTQ movie about a person who must learn to accept his sexuality, as it unfolds, one wishes it were more ordinary—or simpler. In its attempt to be one thing and everything at once—tackling a range of topics from sexuality, race, and class—it ends up being a confused and confusing picture without a strong dramatic pull. Over time, it becomes nothing but a collection of scenes where the actors show they have memorized their lines well.

When the characters end up making speeches, it starts to feel too much like a play. Though the material is originally from the stage, and it might be a very good one, what may work there is not necessarily effective on screen. It requires a completely different energy, flow, and momentum—both in front and behind the camera. Here, though scenes take place in different milieus, the environment is almost negligible.

It should have paid more attention on the human element. What is the main source of Paul’s unhappiness? Is it because he attends a distinguished school but not necessarily passionate about what he is learning? Is his girlfriend too overbearing and at times emotionally distant even though she seems to be around all the time? Or is it because he is tired of constantly being ashamed and having to hide his attraction to men?

The last question is most interesting because many scenes—those tinged with the most humor and sadness—revolve around his bisexuality. For example, when Paul decides to hang out with Mécir (Salim Kechiouche), an Arab who works at the school, in public for the first time, his joy is almost infectious. When they kiss, it is a jolt in our stomachs. When Paul chooses to hold hands with Mécir, it feels like personal moment because we finally see him not feeling scared or being embarrassed or needing to put a front in order to impress whomever is watching. Meanwhile, discussions about class, business, and politics are extremely and unbearably dull in comparison—it does not help that the musings fail to go anywhere worthwhile.

“Grande école,” directed by Salis and based on a play by Besset, is especially problematic in the second half because it does not seem to know how to resolve its story. Characters end up declaring their feelings to the camera. When I saw tears, I sensed performances rather than a true expression of characters’ emotions.

The Fluffer


The Fluffer (2001)
★ / ★★★★

When I watch a movie that takes a look behind the scenes of the adult entertainment industry, I expect to come out of it feeling a little dirty. But I expect to receive a little bit of insight, too, whether it is about the businessmen—or businesswomen—who control what makes it into the final product or about the psychology of performers who are required to shed their inhibitions and clothing in front of the crew and unblinking cameras. Otherwise, if these elements are largely absent, what is the point of taking us into that world? If it is solely for the sake of sleaze, well, then we might be better off watching pornography.

It is curiosity why “The Fluffer,” directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, was made in the first place. It is toothless in satire, the overt comedy is seldom funny, and the characters seem to be skeletal constructs of real people in the industry.

Sean (Michael Cunio) has recently moved to Los Angeles with the hopes of making into Hollywood’s film business. While waiting to snag a job, he spends his time catching up on classic movies by renting tapes from a video store. His intention is to check out Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” but he when he opens the case in his apartment, the tape is labeled “Citizen Cum.” He decides to put it into the VCR anyway. One of its lead stars is Johnny Rebel (Scott Gurney) who captures Sean’s interest immediately. While he waits for his big break, he decides it will be a good idea to work as a cameraman for the pornographic company that consistently hires his latest obsession.

One part of the problem is the casting. While Cunio is a capable actor, perhaps the best in the film, he is too good-looking and appears too intelligent to pass as someone who cannot get a job—any job—outside of porn. It would have been more believable if an actor that is cast either looks like a regular Joe but clever or handsome but comes off dumber than a pile of bricks. An actor who commands both is neither as interesting nor seems to fit the role of Sean as someone who lacks one or both qualities.

The older gentlemen (Richard Riehle, Tim Bagley, Taylor Negron, Robert Walden) in charge of who gets cast, where the sex scene should take place, and what ought to make it through the editing room do not get enough screen time. They are also underwritten. They are reduced to playing bumbling and arguing man-children which is frustrating because they obviously would not have had their positions if they were not smart, knowledgeable, hardworking, likable or cutthroat. These men should have been key to Sean’s education about the film business—whether he decides to stay working for the sex industry, somehow makes it into Hollywood, or leave his dream altogether and settle for something else.

Instead, the picture is mired in a one-sided attraction between Sean and Johnny. It is without focus, only to be blurred further by subplots—one about a pregnancy, the other about a potential boyfriend for the protagonist—that are as dramatic as they are without entertainment value.

All the while, my mind keeps going back to Silver (Adina Porter), a black woman who happens to be a lesbian working in gay porn. Porter demands attention because her delivery of lines has a strength, hinting that her character is jaded but clinging onto the idea that staying at her job is practical for monetary purposes. I wanted to know more about her because the essence of her story is relatable to a lot of people.

Based on the screenplay by Wash Westmoreland, “The Fluffer,” the person who gives a performer fellatio in order to keep his penis erect during filming, goes around in circles. It takes place somewhere that should be interesting but it fails to do anything with it. We walk away from it, taking away nothing we don’t already know.

Eyes Wide Open


Eyes Wide Open (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

After his father dies, an Orthodox Jewish man named Aaron (Zohar Shtrauss) takes over and reopens his father’s butcher shop. From his demeanor, he has not yet completely come to terms with his father’s transition. There is a languidness and sadness behind every movement he executes. He consistently looks down as to avoid contact of any sort. When a customer comes into the shop, he looks up and engages slightly to maintain professionalism. Still, life must go on for he has a family to look after.

Based on the screenplay by Merav Doster, “Einayim Petukhoth” is not about a quickly evolving plot. It likes to take its time to show how a specific Jewish community in Jerusalem lives, thinks, and deals with problems—conflicts in direct opposition to the word of God. There is violence—physical, in the looks given, through rumors passed from one person to another, and the unsaid—and not once does the picture offer an easy solution.

Aaron hiring Ezri (Ran Danker) to work as an apprentice in the butcher shop drives the plot. While the former is highly respected in the community, the latter is not only a stranger from out of town but it appears as though he has a history: being kicked out of an educational institution for having performed “too many good deeds,” a euphemism for being a homosexual. But the movie is not about sex or love. It is about repression.

The religious hypocrisy is unveiled in one of the key scenes involving a leader who lectures his class about how God considers people who abstain as sinners. For example, a man who does not drink wine when it is available is a sinner for God does not want man to suffer. But the explanation does not make much sense to Aaron. He argues that abstaining from immediate pleasure ought to prove one’s devotion to God. Aaron, like new apprentice, is a homosexual. His act of not acting on his homosexual needs and wants is a challenge to be endured. He believes his sacrifice will bring him closer to God.

I watched the picture in rapt curiosity. The subject matter is compelling because in the center lies a man who is so willing bury who he is that he prevents himself from living. He has a beautiful family but notice that he interacts with the children only occasionally. His wife (Rivka Fleischman) getting attention—except compliments for her cooking—is rarer still. Later in the picture, Aaron admits to a rabbi (Isaac Sharry) that prior to Ezri’s arrival, he felt dead inside. I admired that the film does not result to the butcher and his apprentice experiencing complete happiness via a ridiculous montage. The more touching moments are very brief, hidden from the world, and often shared in silence. The suffocating influence of their conservative community never goes away.

At the end of “Eyes Wide Open,” directed by Haim Tabakman, we wonder about Aaron’s future as a father and husband with a responsibility to his family, as a man who loves God, and as a human being who is aware that he is not happy. How long will he be able to keep it up? I stared intently at the water in the final shot. The image fades to black.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post


The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

The title of the film suggests that the protagonist will take an active role in the story, but it turns out Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) is more like a ghost that just so happens to be walking through a gay conversion therapy centre. It is most bizarre and bewildering that for a subject matter that is so important—that is, that such institutions are not only ineffective in “curing” homosexuality, these morally corrupt places actually teach their victims how to hate themselves—the screenplay by Desiree Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele, directed by the former, chooses a passive, often boring, approach. What results is a drama that never takes off, only occasionally saved by performers who know how to captivate the screen with seemingly little effort.

God’s Promise is led by a strict therapist played by Jennifer Ehle. According to Dr. Marsh, homosexuality does not exist because God does not make mistakes. Some people merely have “gender confusion” and those struggling with it are the ones to blame. She is an interesting character because Ehle does not play the devout Christian as a straight-up villain; we get the impression that she is genuine in believing, or has trained herself to believe, that the program (i.e.: brainwashing) actually helps the residents. Dr. Marsh creates a big echo chamber, if you will, and those who do not bend to the rules, regulations, and expectations are likely to break. I appreciated that the experience in God’s Promise is specific enough so that it stands out among familiar places in other films that tackle a similar subject.

The picture is a challenge to get through, however, because the main character is often a bore. There are flashbacks that show snippets of Cameron’s history as a teenager who might be a lesbian (the material leaves open the possibility that she is willing to experiment sexually with other females—she just happened to get caught), but not a single one is so effective that it leaves an imprint about the character, who she is outside of her attraction to females. We even get to meet one family member but there is no dimension to her. It is the typical religious figure who does not understand homosexuality but it is convenient to dump a loved one in a place that promises a remedy and redemption.

And while I enjoyed that it is a different role for Moretz, I was unconvinced she is a good fit for the role. There is often romance on her face when a certain occasion calls for anguish, for example. When tears do come, I did not believe the emotions that triggered them. Cue the well-lit room and the somber score meant to make us feel gloomy. It is all so predictable—but it should not be since there are not that many pictures that take place in a gay conversion therapy program.

Humor is the saving grace of “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” and is often filtered through Cameron’s interactions with the “disciples” she befriends (Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck). The comedy is not always obvious or riotous but subtle and sarcastic. Sometimes when you find yourself stuck in a desperate situation, there is no choice but to laugh or make fun. It is a survival mechanism. And it is ridiculous, the “disciples” being in that horrid place, forced to change when there is nothing wrong with them in the first place. The chemistry among Moretz, Lane, and Goodluck is so convincing, I was at a loss why their friendship is not delved into further.

I admired the material’s compassion, but the execution is lacking.

A Jihad for Love


A Jihad for Love (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★

“A Jihad for Love,” directed by Parvez Sharma, gives us a peek into the lives of Muslims who happen to be homosexuals. Since it widely believed, from the common people to high scholars, that the Quran forbids homosexuality, Muslims who love and are devoted to their religion, Islam, who also consider themselves a part of the LGBTQ community are marginalized, punished, and condemned. Others are put to death.

I do not know much about Islam or what is or is not stated in the Quran, but what I do know is that the Muslims that I have met are kind people. So when I learn about acts of violence toward homosexuals and other minorities related to the Islamic culture in the news, I cannot help but wonder and ask questions. How is life really like for LGBTQ people on the other side of the world? When confronted with questions about homosexuality, how will people who have studied the Quran for many years respond to them?

The documentary lays out the essence of the religion and its followers but only to an extent. Its main focus is on the struggle of those who are treated as outcasts as well as their personal endeavors when it comes to reconciling their theology and being gay.

Particularly memorable is Muhsin Hendricks. He is out of the closet in a very public way and we listen to the radio broadcast of people calling in and expressing their outrage. Some say he, an embarrassment, has no right to be calling himself a follower of Allah. Others demand that he receive physical punishment or be put to death. When he asks his daughters, aware of their father’s homosexuality, if they think gay people should be put to death, the way they answered, not necessarily the content of their responses, is heartbreaking. They are torn from having to choose between their inherent feelings for their father and what they are taught to believe is right or true. A lot of us are not required to make a choice.

Maryam is a lesbian who, in my opinion, clings onto semantics and contradictions in order to be able to live with her sexuality. According to the sacred writing, sexual relations between people of the same gender, specifically between men (never mind the intended context from when it was written), is forbidden. She says she allows herself to love another woman without the physical act—sex—that comes with the relationship. In essence, because she abides by the technicality, she is not committing a sin in the eyes of God.

We may not understand or agree with her point of view completely, but the film does a good job capturing her sadness. We are allowed to sympathize with her. We recognize that she is trapped and perhaps will remain that way for the rest of her life.

The film stays away from showing physical violence committed against homosexuals. The daggers are embedded in the words, the intonations, and the looks given by a respected elder to the homosexual sitting a couple of feet from him. Gay Muslims having to find refuge in other countries out of concern for their safety, as well as their families’, and then later talking about how they miss home and their loved ones via telephone pack a sting, too.

One of the subjects asks, “Why do [people] think the sky has to be the same color for everyone?” It is an excellent question. But I think the reason is this: a lot of people define their lives by following the “right” thing even if a part of them feels that a longstanding rule or belief might be wrong. It is more convenient to overlook or to ignore or to lash out than to consider a challenge, to think about it critically, and to engage in a calm and fair evaluation. Such is the dark side of blind faith.