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.
★ / ★★★★
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 (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.
Fluffer, The (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 (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.
Miseducation of Cameron Post, The (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.
Jihad for Love, A (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.
Sum of Us, The (1994)
★★★★ / ★★★★
It is Friday night and Jeff (Russell Crowe) can barely contain his excitement and nervous energy. He feels it is time to approach the person he has had his eye on, a fellow named Greg (John Polson) who frequents the same pub as him. Jeff lives with his father, Harry (Jack Thompson), who is aware and has accepted his son’s homosexuality. Harry, too, a widower, is searching for love. With the help of a dating agency, he meets Joyce (Deborah Kennedy), a clean and proper woman. With plans of taking their relationship further, Harry wonders if the new belle in his life could accept the truth about his only son.
Many LGBT-themed movies center around the idea of parents finding out the truth about their son or daughter, wrestling with the idea, and coming–or not coming–to terms with it, so it is most refreshing that “The Sum of Us,” based on the play and screenplay by David Stevens, is about a father and son who have gone through the coming out experience. The attention is now toward other people, who may or may not be accepting of lifestyles outside the sphere of heteronormativity, and the familiar fear of rejection.
Harry and Jeff address the audience directly about their thoughts that go unexpressed, equally effective as a comedic and dramatic tool. When one gets very annoyed from a barrage of ill-timed jokes, the other stops and turns toward the camera thereby having a chance to let go of the remaining quips. Conversely, when something is too painful or ought not be expressed to someone else at a particular moment in time, the asides force us to get closer to the sensitive situation by allowing us to absorb what a character is thinking fully. The temporary disruptions from the flow of the story is utilized with balance and control.
The most memorable portion of the screenplay involves Greg being invited by Jeff to his home. Although Harry serves as comic relief, often popping out of the blue and blabbering on about so-and-so, completely putting a halt on the romantic tempo between his son and the visitor, his presence is always welcome. I could not help but be touched by how good the father is to his son. They get on each other’s last nerves once in a while but their love for another is never doubtable. I wished more movies would show a father and his gay son or daughter interacting like a normal family. Notice that the essence of their conversations, if and when sexuality is brought up, is about feelings that are universal, not the stereotypes that conveniently fit under “gay,” “straight,” “masculine,” or “feminine.”
The flashbacks, shown in black and white, are designed to further our understanding of father and son. With Harry, most important is his first time experience going to a gay pub after he learns about his son being attracted to other men. With Jeff, he recollects spending fun times with his late grandmother (Mitch Mathews) and the implications behind Gran having a live-in partner named Mary (Julie Herbert). The common thread is curiosity and the past is used to weave a bridge to make sense of the present.
Directed by Geoff Burton and Kevin Dowling, “The Sum of Us” is ultimately about the love within a family, not “gay” love or “straight” love. It avoids easy solutions to complex circumstances, but at the same time it is brave enough to make us laugh when things take a serious turn. It is a way of coping, a slight nudge to remind the good that remains.
Vie d’Adèle, La (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) knows she is more attracted to women than men, but—with a little push from her friends—she decides to date a male classmate (Jérémie Laheurte) who shows genuine interest in her. They get intimate eventually but being with a man fails to satiate her physical and emotional needs. Adèle does the right thing by choosing to break up with the guy before any more of their time is wasted. Later, the high school student meets Emma (Léa Seydoux), an artist with blue hair. Emma is exciting, challenging, and present. Adèle, very young and idealistic about love, falls hard for her new friend.
“La vie d’Adèle,” also known as “Blue is the Warmest Color,” falls short of being truly special due to an unjustified bulky running time. The first hour does a wonderful job in showing a series of scenes that communicates Adèle’s unhappiness through mind-numbing routines that offer little excitement or fulfillment. She is young and alive but not really living. She wants to be loved by another person but she may not be ready because she is anxious—uncertain at times—about acting on her homosexual impulses.
The film captures how it is like to be young and questioning. Exarchopoulos plays the lead character with a nice blend of naiveté and toughness but at the same time one who is undergoing an emotional turmoil so chaotic, we feel Adèle consistently being on edge—that she might explode any second. Adèle has a group of friends but the girls are not the kind to keep secrets. Her parents are very traditional. The works of literature she reads offer no solution. She is alone and we understand her being thrilled when she finally finds someone with whom she feels she can connect with on an honest and deep level.
Adèle is written smart and so is Emma. Seydoux makes fresh choices in playing the girlfriend. Emma is the tougher and more experienced of the two but there is vulnerability to her, too. The early stages of the blossoming romance are most interesting to dissect because it can be argued that Emma is as scared as Adèle to be together. The material suggests that perhaps Emma has been hurt in the past. We feel her weighing if it is worth putting her guard down and allowing a new person—a high school student, no less—into her life and create something healthy, something both of them can be happy with.
The director, Abdellatif Kechiche, is fond of close-ups. Such a technique is appropriate in a film like this because it relies on us to interpret a well of tiny emotions drawn on faces. The camera being up close and personal urges us to want to hug the characters when they are weak and have no one to confide in. Conversely, it makes us want to push them away when they have betrayed themselves or each other’s trust. By placing our perspective so close to the characters’ faces, like how their heads are always only inches away from one another, we are, in a way, in a relationship with the two women.
There was a lot of hubbub about the “explicitness” of the sex scenes. I find this frustrating because some discussions make it sound like what is shown on screen is pornographic. Sure, the images leave little to the imagination and the love scene is allowed to run longer than expected, but I found it appropriate. To me, the scene embodies Adèle’s true sexual awakening. It is the time when she—who has yearned for so long to be with someone who understands her emotionally and physically—reaches raw sexual freedom, attaining true happiness with a person with whom she does not have to pretend.
“Blue is the Warmest Color,” based on Julie Maroh’s graphic novel, takes several missteps some time in the middle—a handful of scenes that take place a few weeks or months within Adèle and Emma’s relationship. I found them repetitive. They bored me. Many ought to have been excised to keep the rhythm going. For instance, I did not see much point in the two women visiting each other’s families other than to incite obvious tonal differences between the two households. As a result, we expect to see parents in the latter half—when several years have passed since the lovers met—to see how they, too, have or have not changed. Alas, there isn’t even a mention of them.
Alex Strangelove (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
Fifteen to twenty minutes into the picture, I was convinced that “Alex Strangelove,” written and directed by Craig Johnson, would have nothing to offer other than Disney Channel-like conflicts, characters, and sense humor—but not from the creative and daring Disney shows from late 1990s and early 2000s… Rather, from those shows released during the mid- to late 2000s that inspire viewers to roll their eyes due to cheese overdose. But something unexpected happens during an expected high school party—thrown by the drama kids, no less. As it begins to unbox the central conflict of the story, the main character discovering that it is possible he might be bisexual, the picture suddenly comes to life.
There are plenty of coming out stories but not too many stand out. One of the main reasons is a lack of authenticity. In order for this type of story to resonate, it must be believable, from the look of the high school environment and the cast playing certain types of teenagers to the variegated conflicts the characters must grapple with, especially when it comes to the person coming out of the closet and those within his or her inner circle.
While this film does not stand strong among teen-centric LGBTQ+ films like “Get Real,” “But I’m a Cheerleader,” “The Way He Looks,” “Beautiful Thing,” and “Summer Storm,” it gets one thing exactly right: It is compassionate toward both the person dealing with his sexuality and those around him. There is no villain here other than one’s crippling shame and fear—two elements so powerful that Alex is unable to ask himself even the most basic questions regarding his sexuality and to answer questions asked by his peers. Perhaps one of the best parts of the film is when his girlfriend confronts him about not having known or even suspected that he might not be heterosexual after seventeen years. Is that even possible?
Alex is played by Daniel Doheny and he turns the smart, kind, and neurotic class president into a believable person. Doheny shares great chemistry with Madeline Weinstein; the latter is not simply the suspicious girlfriend who nags. She, too, has her own set of problems outside of her romantic relationship with Alex. I enjoyed that their connection is written in a way that it is rooted in friendship rather than one that is copied and pasted from a default template of teen romcoms. When one hurts, so does the other. The picture takes its time to underline this recurring theme. There is no doubt in our minds that their friendship would be able to weather the storm. The question is how their relationship is going to be sculpted.
While the film can be unabashedly crude for the sake of generating laughter, especially the gross-out scenes which almost always revolve around parties, notice its approach during the more dramatic scenes. It is quiet, patient, and the camera is still as it focuses on faces. It feels as though the camera is a friend who is there to be present, to listen, to console as the teens face challenges. By having the courage to trust on what silence communicates and to not move the camera in order to avoid distraction, the writer-director is able to create an intimate look into the teenagers’ lives.
“Alex Strangelove” has a few surprises up its sleeve. Even the boisterous best friend (Daniel Zolghadri) is given shadings. For instance, moments when he tells Alex that he can be difficult sometimes will likely remind the viewer of a good friend who does exactly the same when the occasion calls for it. As for Alex’ potential romantic interest, it is so nice that Elliot (Antonio Marziale) is written as a stable figure, one who does not need to change for anything, or anyone, or simply because the plot demands it. There is freshness to be found in this picture if one is willing to look closely.