2018’s Love Simon inspired me to review stories about LGBT youth. I’ve seen more films since that first article and wanted to share my thoughts. What are some of your favorites?
Booksmart (2019, USA). Two uptight teen girls, one gay/ one straight, go on a wild party crawl the night before graduation. Their biggest surprise is that there are no “mean” kids. The fantastic supporting cast of Gen Z youth are eager to welcome them with open arms. Creative hijinks ensue. Nothing like my Gen X high school experience, though a bit like my college campus. Highly Recommended.
The Curiosity of Chance (2006, Belgium/USA). Flamboyant teen is picked on by bullies, tries drag and crushes on the inevitable “sensitive jock.” The high school leads are played by lanky 25 year olds delivering un-funny one liners in a broad, theatrical style. It doesn’t work.
Ernesto (1979, Italy). Social climbing lad dumps his working-class boyfriend to court an upper-class girl. A mix of social satire and tragedy. Nice to find another obscure gay movie, but I’m still searching for English subtitles.
Slash (2016, USA). Teens explore their sexuality at a slash fiction convention. There’s talk of queerness but the focus is on a m/f relationship. The fic writers are the butt of easy jokes with little attempt made to understand them. Should have been funnier and sexier.
Summer Storm (2004, Germany). Rude teen attends rowing camp with his girlfriend and the guy he’s lusting after. The arrival of an all gay team makes him face his fears. Plenty of eye candy but the lead is unpleasant and his journey is tropey. I’d have preferred a film about the gay team. They’re lust objects and comic relief but one internal debate about how “stereotypically” they should behave at the match suggests they could have carried a more interesting film.
Being 17 (2016, France). Unhealthy romance between a twink and a bully. When their naïve parents negotiate a truce the boys do more than kiss and make up. We learn enough about the bully to understand his behavior but it’s still hard to root for a romance with someone he’s physically assaulted. Still the actors sell the attraction in every glowering fist fight. The snowy climate allows for some lovely cinematography.
Beneath the Skin (2015, Canada). Amateur writer/director/star gives himself a role where he can be beat up by bullies and have softcore love scenes with a handsome co-star. He’s having more fun than the audience.
Harvest (2011, Germany). Troubled teen boys intern on a farm and fall in love. They spend most of the film silently tending the cows and fields. I found it dull. You’d be better off watching God’s Own Country.
Last Summer (2013, USA). A bittersweet twist on familiar tropes. We follow a teen jock when his nerdy boyfriend outgrows him. Luke is flunking summer school while Jonah is leaving for college. They spend one last summer together, cuddling and exploring their rural hometown. The gorgeous cinematography captures the beauty of a place Jonah can’t wait to leave. Small scenes, like Jonah trying to help Luke with his math homework, are devastating. There’s very little dialogue, and Luke’s fatalism grows tiresome, but the film is ambitious and has subtle charms.
Ruben’s Place (2012, USA). Ruben drops out of college to care for his alcoholic father. He reconnects with his high school crush, Jimmy, and works to build them both a better life. Slow paced, with amateur actors, but the leading man is likeable. His optimism in the face of financial hardship keeps the angst at bay. The ending is a little too happy but there are more than enough LGBT tragedies.
Screwed (2017, Finland). Boy meets boy at a lakeside vacation. A helicopter mother provides conflict. The hunky protagonist has an awkward bro energy from imitating his older sibling. He and his beau have frank discussions about closeted and rebound relationships that I appreciated. Articulate protagonists are rare in coming out films. Recommended.
Center of My World (2016, Germany). Coming of age drama features a big-hearted teen desperately seeking love from a withholding boyfriend and a toxic family. Starts off as sexy fun but quickly grows maudlin. The lumpy screenplay is based on a YA novel.
Closet Monster (2015, Canada). Kid watches a gay bashing, clashes with his father and talks to his hamster. The hamster is a clever idea but can’t leaven the gloom. The scattered script feels like a first draft.
Dare (2009, USA). Teen boy and girl compete for the attentions of a troubled hunk in their high school drama class. Flirting escalates to sexual harassment. The cast is too old and the writing turns mean spirited. Expanded from a short film that treated the characters with more kindness.
Edge of Seventeen (1998, USA). Teen boy experiences his first job and first heartbreak in the 1980’s. A story this archetypal needed some humor and personality. But the film is oddly flat. Only Lea DeLaria’s mentor brings some fun to an underwritten role through sheer force of will. Not to be confused with the 2016 film of the same name.
Freak Show (2017, USA). Rich boy comes to school in fabulous drag outfits, is nearly beaten to death, then runs for homecoming queen. The lead is a narcissist and the supporting roles are all saints or monsters. The characters behavior raises LOTS of questions but the screenplay isn’t interested in details. All we’re left with are pretty costumes and some triggery violence.
Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (2015, USA). Christian community meets for a birthday party where lust and alcohol drive them wild. A triggery climax pushes things over the top, and the excess number of characters leaves everyone underdeveloped. I prefer the directors’ earlier film, The Wise Kids, which tackled similar themes.
Hidden Kisses (2016, France). Two boys kiss at a party. A photo is circulated online and bullying ensues. I had to fast forward through the violence. The bulk of the film is focused on the contrasting response of the boys’ fathers. The blue collar dad grows supportive while the wealthy dad withdraws. We eventually get some hope but there’s much pain along the way.
My Life on Ice (2002, France). Teen athlete is given a camcorder. He films his life as he trains for an ice-skating tournament and falls for two straight men. The actor is likable but the coming of age plot is predictable and the camcorder gimmick grows stale.
North Sea Texas (2011, Belgium). Quiet teen loves his boyfriend and ignores his mother. When both of them abandon him he must… well that’s the problem. He doesn’t do much of anything. The screenplay is based on a novel. It’s rambling, slow paced and light on conflict. I enjoyed the cast but was bored with the non-story. Makes an interesting double-bill with the similar Center of My World.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012, USA). Depressed teen boy befriends a rebellious teen girl and her feisty gay step-brother. They cope with heartbreak, abuse, and mental illness. The script gets pretty triggery but respects the audience more than most teen fare. The gorgeous actors aren’t convincing as “outcasts” but their charm carries the film. Ezra Miller won raves in the gay role, but the script doesn’t give him much to do. Highly Recommended.
Tea and Sympathy (1956, USA). Groundbreaking drama in which a sensitive teen is accused of homosexuality at his all boys school. Deborah Kerr plays the headmasters’ wife who tries to defend him from bullies. The film was compromised by rewrites and censorship, but it’s impressive that it was made at all. 2018’s Giant Little Ones feels like a spiritual successor.
The Wise Kids (2011, USA). Three Christian teens struggle with their faith as they plan for college. Sweet Tim’s coming out has sent devout Laura and doubting Brea into tail spins. The slice of life script has tonal issues but the young actors are immensely likable. Recommended.
You’ll Get Over It (2002, France). Tropey teen drama. When the high school swim champ is outed his team shuns him. He grows sour in turn, till his friends push him to continue competing. The film merrily objectifies the actors but denies them personalities. There’s a tense scene of underwater bullying and an awkward conversation with a closeted teacher. Beyond these the film is dull.
1965’s Winter Kept Us Warm, a Canadian indie, was one of the first movies to openly explore m/m romance on a campus setting. And even then the writers had to be coy. These next few stories straddle the line between teen and adult tales with a mix of students exploring their sexuality.
The Conrad Boys (2006, USA). When his mother dies Charlie delays college to raise his 9-year-old brother. It’s a terrible idea but Charlie copes with his grief by snapping at anyone who tries to help. It takes a sexy drifter to break through his shell and teach him to smile again. The gents are pretty but the amateur filmmaking and unlikable characters make it a hard sit.
Defying Gravity (1997, USA). A gay student was attacked and a frat house is under investigation. A closeted frat boy will have to decide whether to support the victim or his bros. Some ambiguity would have been nice but the bros are sketchy from the start. We’re left waiting for the leading man to do the right thing. Earnest amateur performances and a syrupy soundtrack provide some campy laughs.
Merlí. Sapere Aude (2019, Spain). The 2015 series focused on a cranky high school teacher. The spin off focuses on his star student Pol. A college setting allows him make new friends, clash with a new professor and explore his bisexuality. The show is more interested in classroom debate than most school dramas, but still includes a hefty dose of m/m sex and romance. Actor Carlos Cuevas is charismatic and carries his increased duties with aplomb. Recommended.
Silent Youth (2012, Germany). Two college students, one German, one Russian, pick each other up on the streets of Berlin. They share awkward small talk and uncomfortable silences. As the German gains confidence, the Russian grows ever more unsure. Inarticulateness is a common theme in coming out narratives. Here it may try your patience unless you’re willing to connect the subtextual dots yourself.
Yes Or No (2010, Thailand). (aka Yaak Rak Gaw Rak Loey). College romance. Prissy student can’t stand her “tomboy” roommate, Kim, but when her friends fall for Kim’s charms, she’ll have to decide what’s really upsetting her. Has a broad, cartoonish energy that I found grating. Inspired sequels.
The Everlasting Secret Family (1988, Australia). Politician keeps a teen boy who grows up and seduces the politician’s young son. Gay-sploitation flick is both homoerotic and homophobic.
Fire Song (2015, Canada). Bisexual First Nations teen copes with love and loss on his family’s reservation. Starts heavy and gets worse before a spot of light. The endless misery was a lot to sit through. Amateur cast is uneven but likeable.
Genesis (2018, Quebec). Three tales of teen heartbreak. Théodore Pellerin (Boy Erased, On Becoming a God) plays a class clown undone by a crush on a jock. Pellerin commits to his self-destructive character but it’s hard to watch him suffer.
Jitters (2010, Iceland). Teen girls cope with families, dating and depression in an overstuffed screenplay. Their gay friend (a sweet Atli Oskar Fjalarsson) listens to their troubles and deflects their amorous advances. He gets a light romantic subplot to bookend their darker stories. Plays like a sad version of the show Skam.
Jonas (2018, France). (aka Boys). Timeline alternates between Jonas’s high school romance and his unhappy adulthood. We soon realize something terrible happened to his first love. The truth is revealed late in the film, leaving the audience as depressed as the title character. Not to be confused with 2014’s sunny Dutch Romance Jongens (aka Boys).
Totally F***ed Up (1993, USA). Early Gregg Araki film follows six gay teens through an aimless summer in L.A. There’s a bit of Charles Shultz’s Peanuts in their curbside philosophizing. Araki’s deadpan puppet performance style is an acquired taste. It works for the sketch comedy in the first half but grows monotonous when the drama takes over.
And a few more that I couldn’t bring myself to finish. Long time readers know I’m tired of the “bury your gays” trope. I’m putting them here as an FYI for less squeamish viewers.
- 1:54 (2016, USA). Teen athlete plans to murder a bully.
- The Consequence (1977, Germany). 15 year old falls for an older man. His disapproving parents, and undiagnosed mental illness, drive him to self harm. Most interesting for the year it was made.
- Dream On (2013, UK). Gay teen goes on vacation with his mother. He falls in love with an alcoholic.
- Fogi Is a Bastard (1998, France). Gay teen enters an abusive relationship with a rock star.
- Green Butterflies (2017, Colombia). Gay teen is bullied into suicide.
- In the Blood (2006, USA). College student becomes psychically connected with a serial killer.
- Monster Pies (2013, Australia). High school boys make a student film based on Romeo and Juliet. Their own lives soon mirror the story.
- Savage Grace (2007, USA). Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne play a mother and son who fall for the same man. Based on a true crime story.
Eyewitness (2014, Norway). Two closeted teens witness a murder. The killer is hunting them but they’re too stupid scared to tell anyone. A novel premise but the constant idiocy got on my nerves. The story was remade in America and France.
My Husband Has More Family (2017-2019, Mexico). (aka Mi Marido Tiene Más Familia). Mexican soap, featured a romance between two teen boys, Aristóteles and Temo. They were kept apart by the usual complications (the closet, a disapproving father, a creepy romantic rival) but once they got together, they became a power couple with a loyal fan base. The show trolled the censors by having the gents regularly start to kiss before cutting to commercial. Fans demanded a real kiss and eventually got one. Aristemo proved so popular that they were featured in a spin off series: The Heart is Never Wrong (2019). In a college setting the gents could meet new queer characters and show more affection.
New Day (Finland, 2010) (aka Uusi Päivä) Teen soap. Siblings fall for a dreamy dancer at their performing arts school. He starts dating the sister but ends up dating the brother. The dancers’ boorish father provides the conflict. The storyline is brief but a scene of the boys waltzing together in class was heartwarming.
Paragon School for Girls (2013, USA). Web series. A murder mystery at a magical girls’ school. The catch? The girls are played by gay male comedians. The early episodes are slow but things pick up for the finale. It’s clever but it could have been hilarious with a little pruning.
Sex Education S1 (2019, UK). Netflix. Sex therapists’ son starts an advice business at his high school. It’s one of those fantasy schools where everyone’s a hot 20 something and there are no consequences for violence in the hallways. Everyone’s abrasive, including the gay characters. For all the talk of sex there’s no talk of consent and the sons’ seeming asexuality is treated as a hang up to be “cured.” Critics have liked this but I’m not the target audience.
The Skam Remakes (2018-2019). Norwegian teen web series proved so popular that it was remade in seven countries: America, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. The romance between Isak and Evan has been rewritten for male, female and trans characters. The basic plot points are the same but each culture has its own take on the characters and on homophobia. I love this series and it’s been a pleasure to watch each iteration of Isak from Germany’s cuddly stoner, to France’s prickly porcupine to Spain’s wisecracking clown. Highly Recommended.
The Society S1 (2019). Netflix. Lord of the Flies in an abandoned city. It’s too violent for me, but I enjoyed the compiled scenes of the deaf gay teen, Sam, and his surprise love interest. They’re adorable, despite some weak writing.
A Handshake (2018, Germany). Queerblick continues to produce LGBT student films. Here two young men shake hands, then imagine an entire relationship in silent fast forward. It’s not Proust or Up but it works. Loses points for use of one unpopular trope: the cheating bisexual.
Blue Boy (2019, UK). Obnoxious gay teen is sent on a scavenger hunt by his online date. There’s a twist but the story is better in concept than execution.
boys in love (2016). A silent film follows the blossoming romance of two young friends. Gentle and kind with only a little stumble towards the end.
The Boy Who Couldn’t Swim (2011, Denmark). Bittersweet short film. Two teens, a thief and a tourist, meet cute in a Copenhagen train station. They each have an errand to run so they spend the day together. The actors are interesting when talking but the director over-relies on long silences that they can’t quite fill.
Cognitio (2018, Denmark). Shy teen in a mental institution falls for a brassy rule breaker. Lead actor Lasse Steen Jensen is intriguing. He’s starred in other gay short films but this one was my favorite. Recommended.
Curse of the Unkissable Kid (2016, USA). A cute amateur musical romcom.
Dust (2019, Netherlands). Teen farm worker is forced to choose between his gay best friend and his bro-y peers. Things turn ugly. The director has fun contrasting the bros’ homophobia with their homoerotic rough housing. Well-acted but unpleasant.
Hann (2019, Iceland). (aka Him). Teen refuses to tell his dad about his date. You can guess the reason, but will dad? Sensitive, with a touch of suspense. Recommended.
Little Bill’s Peep Show (2017, USA). Real life tragedy is retold as a John Waters-y cringe comedy. Teen humiliates his gay roommate. The roommate kills himself and comes back as a vengeful zombie. A narrator mocks the audience: “Who are you rooting for?” Deliberately unpleasant.
Lúbtha (2019, Ireland). Bullied teen makes plans to run away from home. Things work out better than he’d planned. The lead is likeable, though he looks a bit mature for high school.
Lucky Blue (2007, Sweden). Shy teen works at his parents’ camp ground. When an angsty gay tourist starts flirting, then retreats, the lead will search for a song to win him over at karaoke night. The lead is sweet though the love interests’ tsundere act gets old fast.
Out Again (2015, Canada). Groundhog Day plot as teen relives his attempts to come out as bi. Cute premise. Clumsy execution.
Rose Canyon (2018). Grieving teen has stopped attending school. A classmate with a crush stops by with his homework. The dialogue is stilted but the affection they show each other is warm.
Sipping (2015, Mexico) (aka Libar). Two teens meet after school to finish their homework. One proposes a study “game” involving a bottle of honey. Sweet in every sense.
Water (2012, Netherlands). (aka Vattnet). When a teenager witnesses a gay bashing, he takes the victim home for a shower and a clean set of clothes. Unrequited sexual tension ensues. Fine performances but the lack of closure frustrates.
Why Does God Hate Me? (2011, USA). Short film. Gay man narrates a story about his childhood. His angry, conservative parents took him to an anti-gay protest at a Pride parade. Seeing liberated gay men gives him the courage to leave home. A snarky Wonder Years tone keeps the tropey story from getting too gloomy.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012) by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Mopey teen Ari falls for cheerful friend Dante, then avoids him. Ari’s a well written, but stagnant, character. Some deux ex machinas and the underwritten supporting cast have to push the plot and get the two lovers together. The ending is sweet but feels a bit unearned.
Barracuda (2013) by Christos Tsiolakas. Working class teen gets a swim scholarship to a posh school. His wealthy team mates turn him into a self-loathing time bomb. Chapters alternate with his adult self who copes with PTSD and an oblivious boyfriend. The prose is smart and the narrative tense, but I grew weary of the obsessive protagonist. His friends and foes are thinly sketched, offering little relief from his slow meltdown. Was made into a mini-series.
Becoming Nancy (2011) by Terry Ronald. David is cast as Nancy in his boy’s school production of Oliver. This draws the wrath of bullies and the affection of a hunky co-star. David’s flowery narration takes getting used to. He lacks a filter and basic survival skills. It’s cringey and scary to see him constantly put himself in harm’s way. The love interest feels too-good-to-be-true but the rest of the cast is well drawn. Recently adapted into a musical.
Boy Meets Boy (2003) by David Levithan. Gay teen love triangle in a comically LGBT+ friendly town. Groundbreaking in 2003. Thankfully less unusual in 2019. I found the flaky leading man obnoxious but stuck around for the interesting supporting cast. They include a gossipy trans quarterback and a repressed gay teen overwhelmed by visits to the charmed town.
Dead Weight: Murder at Camp Bloom (2018). Graphic Novel by Terry Blas, Molly Muldoon and Matthew Seeley. The premise is brilliant: A murder mystery at a teen weight loss camp. Unfortunately it tries to cram too many characters into too few pages. The four protagonists are thinly sketched. The time spent introducing them leaves little time to conduct their investigation. What the writing lacks, the expressive artwork nearly makes up for.
Geography Club (2003) by Brent Hartinger. A teen joins a secret GSA, then throws his friends under the bus to impress a closeted jock. Book draws unspoken parallels between his behavior and the antagonists… then spells it all out in the final chapters. Book feels a little shapeless with underdeveloped supporting characters and an unlikable protagonist. I had the same problem with the film adaptation. Also interesting to see how many elements were borrowed and refined in Simon Vs. The Homo Sapien Agenda.
How to Repair a Mechanical Heart (2012) by J.C. Lillis. Angry Catholic teen goes to a sci-fi convention with a Manic Pixie Dream Boy. The characters are obnoxious but the ideas about the relationship between queer and straight fan communities are interesting.
Leah on the Offbeat (2018) by Becky Albertalli. The sequel to Love, Simon’s source novel Simon Vs…. Leah nurses a same-sex crush and preps for college. She’s full of unfocused rage and keeps lashing out at her friends. The author’s not afraid to make her protagonist unlikeable. It gets cringe-y though that may feel accurate to some teen experiences. The characters from the first book are back, but some moments feel more like author retconning than character growth.
More Happy Than Not (2015) by Adam Silvera. Traumatized teen considers a memory procedure to forget his homosexuality. Things are okay, till they are not. The lead’s desire to keep his terrible friends rather than seek out the gay community is depressing. The poor kid needs a therapist and a hug. Instead he gets endless tragedy.
The Order of the Poison Oak (2005) by Russell Middlebrook. The lead from Geography Club bonds with burn victim survivors, sets up his friend on a date, and gets caught in a predictable love triangle. Middlebrook’s willing to let his lead be childish and unpleasant. His gradual bonding with the prickly campers is handled at a convincing pace. Interesting to see the author move beyond the standard coming out arc with this character.
Social Intercourse (2018) by Greg Howard. A jock and a choir boy join forces to stop their parents’ affair. They do horrible things but eventually fall for each other. Mix of sexy fun and cringey cruelty. The sassy, angry gay boy makes more sense on the page than the fantasy of the sexy bisexual jock. The author has given interviews where he makes a case for non-saintly queer characters in YA fiction.
Stranger Than Fanfiction (2017) by Chris Colfer. Four teen fans and a bitter child star drive cross country. Secrets are revealed and advice is given. Colfer mines humor from his own TV experience while creating a non biographical story. The Stars’ big secrets are heavily foreshadowed making the teen’s treatment of him seem moronic and heartless. The broad satire sits oddly against the more realistic conversations. I didn’t love this but I did like it.
Two Boys Kissing (2013) by David Levithan. Two teen boys kissed for 33 hours to enter the Guinness Book of World Records. Levithan weaves four stories of gay/bi/trans teens around this event. Some are happy, some are tragic. The author has a lot to say about the new generation of queer youth. A swift and moving read. Recommended.
Will Grayson, Will Grayson (2010) by John Green and David Levithan. Two writers alternate chapters and protagonists. Straight Will helps with the school musical while gay Will gets catfished. Their awful friend Tiny bosses them around. The book loves Tiny and lets him take over the narrative. I thought he was a tiresome jerk.
Equus (1973). I saw a recent production of Peter Shaffer’s play about the teen who falls in love with a sexy gay horse. The pop psychology hasn’t aged well but the appeal of a naked twink remains eternal.
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (2017). An interesting story, two great leads (John McCrea and Josie Walker ) and an uneven score. Teen drag queen drowns in inspirational songs and dispatches multiple antagonists while coming to terms with an enabling mother. The original London cast was filmed.
The Prom has completed it’s Broadway run and should soon see regional productions. Beautiful Thing and Bare see revivals and What’s Wrong With Angry? is still there waiting to be revived.
Every teen drama on Netflix and the CW seems to feature a LGBT subplot. Disney broke new ground with Andi Mack and now features an out teen in High School Musical: The Musical – the Series. The Skam franchise has more content on the horizon. 2019’s Queer Film Festival Season has ended and the works are seeking wider distribution for 2020. What about Hollywood? Is there another Love, Simon or Booksmart on the horizon? Or will Hollywood execs dismiss these as “flukes?” What YA novel are you still waiting for an adaptation of?
For more reviews of LGBT media click here. Next week I’ll review more stories with adult protagonists.