For years, “gay movies” were practically a genre unto themselves, neatly conforming to one of three categories: stories about coming out, stories about unrequited love, and stories about the impact of AIDS. ~ Peter Debruge, Variety
Recent years have seen a renaissance of LGBT cinema with films like Carol (2015), Moonlight (2016), Call Me By Your Name (2017), Love, Simon (2018), and Booksmart (2019) skipping the festivals and jumping to the multiplex. Where does that put Chicago’s Reeling Festival in 2019?
I saw about a third of the festivals’ offerings with a focus on m/m narratives. Here are some highlights:
Cousins (2019, Brazil). In this campy romcom a horny delinquent visits his religious aunt and his repressed young cousin. It’s clear the gents will hook up and get caught. The question is whether they can maintain a relationship. Broad performances, particularly from a jealous mean girl, give it the feel of a live action yaoi. The leads are likable and there’s plenty of eye candy but the script is clumsy and the film making is amateurish. C-
Eastsiders (2019, USA). Season 4. Episodes 1 and 2. The couples of Eastsiders are in wildly different places, ranging from a tense couples counseling session to a Bridezilla drag wedding. Cal’s grown from the depressed prude of season one to a confident sexual adventurer. Season 3 had provided a satisfying goodbye to the characters but Season 4 has me invested again. The women are still clichés but the script contains some of the smartest writing about m/m relationships I’ve seen in media. The full season drops on Netflix this fall. A
Sell By (2019, USA). Scott Evans plays an artist whose partner of five-years is ignoring him. His wacky friends have love troubles of their own. Should their relationships be salvaged or have they passed their sell by date? Evans brings dimensions to a man who settled for a bad job and sunk into depression while his partner took risks and made a small fortune. His placid demeanor hides a boiling rage that surfaces at inopportune moments. Unfortunately, the film thinks his musical comedy friends are equally interesting, juggling four plot-lines and causing tonal whiplash. This cuts key conversations short and leaves some third act decisions feeling unmotivated. C+
The Shiny Shrimps (2019, France). A homophobic athlete is forced to coach a gay water polo team. The predictable plot allows the script to satirize prejudice within the LGBT+ community. The party-loving Shrimps will only focus when the coach provokes their anger. Fights erupt between gay/lesbian, cis/trans and old/young players on the road to the Gay Games. The film has plenty of laughs but the subtext about male aggression leaves something to ponder after the credits roll. B
Steam Room Stories: The Movie! (2019, USA). The hunks of the Steam Room web series must save their gym from a selfish tycoon. The Muppets could get away with this flimsy plot but they had distinct comic personalities. The Steam Room gents are bland and interchangeable. They’re frequently shirtless, yet oddly asexual. We get jokes about farts, genitals, diets and the fourth wall. If that’s enough for you, then check it out. D
Straight Up (2019, USA). Neurotic mostly-gay man enters an asexual relationship with an equally neurotic woman. Where the similar Kissing Jessica Stein featured a woman who couldn’t communicate with her partner, these two motormouths do their best to discuss their fears and expectations. The film succeeded in making me root for the central couple. Some romcoms let you know exactly where they’re headed. This one kept me guessing. B
While comic leads talk a mile a minute, the men of these next films prefer to brood in silence. This leaves the audience with the task of filling in the blanks.
The Blonde One (2019, Argentina). A shy single dad rents a room from a flaky co-worker. The men begin a clandestine affair but his lover refuses to give up his bros and babes persona. Marco Berger makes slow burning films about male longing. The pace can fascinate and infuriate. On paper the father is a passive martyr. Actor Gaston Re makes him a passionate, complicated man who is learning how to voice his needs. He brings a depth to this film that the characters in the next two lack. B-
End of the Century (2019, Spain). Two strangers hook up. One claims they’ve met before. We jump through time to their past encounter in a story about missed opportunities. Writer/Director Lucio Castro indulges in long stretches of silence as the men wander through parks, markets and museums. In contrast their love scenes are comically noisy as they grunt and scream into the night. The flashbacks build moments of uneasiness, suggesting an unreliable narrator. When the tale is done the men remain handsome ciphers. We know the “what” but not the “why.” C
Orpheus’ Song (2019, Germany). Two dopey bros go hiking through Greece. Eventually they meet a stranger in a cave. In a different film they’d be murdered. Here the stranger acts as a fertility god who awakens their barely hidden passions. Will they still be friends the morning after? The moody hunks are inarticulate. Again, I never learned enough about them to invest in the relationship. C
Cubby (2019, USA). Mentally unstable man takes a babysitting job… and stops taking his meds. The child thinks his antics are hilarious but the audience sees he’s coming unraveled. The leading man is a strange, complex character but the child actor is too green to carry his portion of the narrative. Commits to its dark, surreal tone resulting in a deeply uncomfortable watch. C
More Beautiful for Having Been Broken (2019, USA). A lesbian cop investigates a mystery involving a lakeside resort, a disgraced politician and a psychic child. She falls for the child’s feisty single mother. Portentous narration, cheap special effects and a self-serious tone turn things into the best kind of accidental camp. The screening started late so I had to leave 80 minutes in for another appointment. Unfinished.
An Almost Ordinary Summer (2019, Italy). When two elderly men announce their engagement, their adult children attempt to sabotage the relationship. One gradually realizes that her would-be stepfather understands her better than her biological father ever did. The unlikely father/daughter friendship grounds a fast moving farce full of wacky characters and overwrought arguments. B
This Isn’t Me (2019, USA). Pilot Episode. Immature gay man takes a tutoring job for an angry child. He quickly intuits the child may be transgender and attempts to offer support. Some broad sitcom comedy ensues. The goofy lead gives a likable performance that keeps him sympathetic despite some unethical behavior. B-
Sequin in a Blue Room (2019, Australia). Sequin, a promiscuous teen, sneaks into a sex party where he becomes the target of a middle-aged stalker. First time filmmaker Samuel Van Grinsven pays homage to the work of Gregg Araki with surreal imagery and a growing sense of dread. He’s blessed with a charismatic leading man, Conor Leach, who keeps us in Sequin’s corner. His self-destructive behavior may seem nihilistic but it comes from a place of aching loneliness. B+
Mark Patton played the ambiguously gay protagonist 1985’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2. Horror villains have often been coded as LGBT+ but Mark’s character was the beleaguered hero. It got him blacklisted from Hollywood. He tells his story in the documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street (2019, USA). The backlash was shameful but since then LGBT+ horror has moved from subtext to text. I missed the sold out screening.
I watched six collections of short films at the festival. Highlights included:
The Curse (2018, USA). Man on a Grindr date is cursed by a witch to tell only the truth. Hilarious, though a little sex negative. B
Dante vs. Mohammed Ali (2019, Belgium, Netherlands). A teen poet is pushed by his father into a local boxing match. His opponent? The boy he loves. Part Romeo and Juliet. Part Ferdinand the Bull. It’s nice to see Gijs Blom, of 2014’s excellent film Jongens, in another romantic leading role. A
Foreign (2018, UK). Ruby, a stand-up comic, is confident on stage but a nervous wreck off. Her narcissistic best friend has accepted the contrast but her date for the night is unsettled by it. Mark Pinkosh’s film creates three fascinating characters that I wanted to spend more time with. A
The Handyman (2019, USA). Wealthy man breaks his appliances to reconnect with a hunky handyman. The film wants the harassment to read as sexy and romantic. This short encapsulates my problem with J.C. Calciano’s romcoms. His attempts at fizzy comedy are undercut by his unpleasant protagonists. C-
Misdirection (2019, USA). Lesbian copes with her OCD by studying magic. A likeable cast and some clever visual representations of her condition. B
Rubber Dolphin (2018, Israel). A one night stand from beginning to end. The men reveal more about their lives than they intended in a nuanced short that reminded me of 2011’s Weekend. A
The Young Actors Theatre Camp gathers LGBT+ youth to create short films over 4 days. The quality is understandably uneven but the project is worthwhile. Their YouTube channel is quite the rabbit hole.
Over the course of the festival I saw
- 14 precocious child actors (not including the students of the Young Actors Theatre Camp.
- 10 stories with happy same-sex couples
- 7 closeted protagonists
- 5 brutal beatings of gay men
- 4 gross-out jokes
- 3 gay deaths
- 2 nuanced discussions of sexual fluidity
- 1 mention of asexuality
Up next: Martin Sheen and Hal Holbrook play gay dads in 1972’s That Certain Summer.