LGBT Movies: Outfest 2020

Outfest has been promoting LGBTQIA+ stories and filmmakers since 1982. The nonprofit organization, based in Los Angeles, streamed over 160 films online from August 20-30, 2020. I managed to catch over 25 features and 60 short films. It was a strong and diverse line up.  Here are some highlights.

Comedy

Rachel Sennott in Shiva Baby

The 20th Century (2019, Canada). History as expressionistic burlesque. Clowns, drag queens and hideous puppets enact the life of William Lyon Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne). He’ll betray his heart as he campaigns to be Canada’s 10th Prime Minister. The deadpan cast commits to the nonsensical story. The film is often incoherent but never dull.  B-

Shiva Baby (2020, US). College student (Tahara’s Rachel Sennott) goes from her sugar daddy’s home to a funeral reception. She dodges questions from her rude parents, bitter ex-girlfriend and a surprise guest. She’s a neurotic mess who can’t tell a convincing lie to save her life. This dials the cringe comedy up to eleven in the opening minutes and keeps it there. If you can stand the stress there is fun to be had. B-

Coming of Age

Anna Celestino Mota, Surya Amitrano and Matheus Moura in Alice Junior

Alice Junior (2019, Brazil). Out trans teen (vibrant Anna Celestino Mota) is forced to enroll in a conservative Catholic high school. She’ll cope with bullies, crushes and bureaucracy. More interesting is her prickly relationship with the closeted students. They’re wary of the attention she draws. Has a bright, sunny energy that sets it apart from most LGBT coming of age films. Emmanuel Rosset gives a warm performance as her supportive father. A

(Another Brazilian film, Valentina, had a similar premise but went in darker directions. A trans teen moves to a new school where she’s brutally assaulted. I found this one too triggering to finish.)

Cocoon (Kokon) (2020, Germany). When Nora starts high school she learns about cyberbullies, menstruation and teen pregnancies. She tries to fit in with her sister’s cruel friends. But she matches better with a fellow misfit. Romance is secondary in a film about the daily challenges of adolescence. Lena Urzendowsky gives a layered performance as the wide-eyed protagonist. B

Dramarama (2020, US). Theater teens throw a graduation party. A last chance to confess their feelings, come out, or both. The first half captures a frisky, hyper-articulate energy, ala Booksmart. The second half devolves into a series of repetitive arguments. Instead of upping the stakes they drain the film of all fun. That’s basically how my high school theater parties ended.  B-
(Header image is of Nick Pugliese from Dramarama)

Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) (2020, Australia). Ellie’s (Sophie Hawkshaw) coming out wins her a visit from her late lesbian aunt. But the grumpy teen rejects her and anyone else who offers advice. If you can stand her tantrums there’s an interesting story about the ways folks can stifle themselves even after coming out. Ellie insists that being gay is “easier” now. She’ll learn that it’s still hard to be a teenager. C+

Gossamer Folds (2020, US). An unhappy child befriends his glamorous trans neighbor, Gossamer. Both long to leave their town behind. Alexandra Grey’s Gossamer is a complex character, though our view of her is mostly restricted to the child’s eyes. She’s thorny enough to avoid most magical mentor tropes. Child actor Jackson Robert Scott is skilled and carries the film’s narrative. B

Minyan (2020, US). Jewish teen wrestles with his sexuality and his faith. 20-something Samuel H. Levine (The Inheritance) is unconvincing as a teenager but he gives a sensitive performance. The episodic script piles on more characters than it can develop. His patient grandfather (Ron Rifkin) and his flaky first love (Alex Hurt) stand out. A subplot for an elderly gay couple provides the film’s most emotional scenes.  B-

No Hard Feelings (Wir) (2020, Germany). An out and proud youth (Benny Radjaipour) befriends an Iranian refugee and her closeted brother. There’s a romance but the film is more interested in the absurd bureaucracy of immigration law. Faraz Shariat’s direction gives the first half the energy of a rave and the second half the woozy self-reflection of a hangover. B

Tahara (2020, US). When a girl takes her life, her fellow students attend a grief counseling session. The straight teens (including Shiva Baby’s Rachel Sennott) gossip and flirt. The closeted lesbian (Madeline Grey DeFreece) struggles to blend in. It’s less 13 Reasons Why then Heathers as the quippy narcissists have no empathy. The jokes land but the casual cruelty will repel some. C+

Drama

Henry Golding in Monsoon

Cowboys (2020, US). Unstable dad (Steve Zahn) kidnaps his young trans son (Sasha Knight) from his conservative ex-wife’s (Jillian Bell) home. They hike toward Canada with a detective (Ann Dowd) in pursuit. The parents aren’t villains and the child’s not a saint. They’re just making horrible decisions. Zahn gives a heartfelt performance as a man trying to do the right thing while unraveling at the seams. Powerful and suspenseful. A

Monsoon (2019, UK). Henry Golding visits Vietnam to scatter his mother’s ashes. He reconnects with an estranged friend and dates a confident business man. Golding has the charisma to carry the film as he explores Saigon and Hanoi in near silence. Benjamin Kracun’s cinematography is gorgeous. B

The Teacher (Wo De Ling Hun Shi Al Zuo De) (2019, Taiwan). A Civics teacher (Oscar Chiu) juggles workplace discrimination and an affair with a married man (Chin-Hao Chang). Chiu brings many layers to an intelligent man who can’t stop sabotaging himself. Chang’s role gives him less to work with. The first hour is a slow burn. The third act indulges in melodrama.  B-

Two Eyes (2020, US). A man explores his sexuality in the 1890’s. A teen explores their gender identity in the 1970’s. A therapist consoles a troubled youth in the 2010’s. The three tales are brief and sad. Jessica Allain makes the strongest impression as a rebellious foreign exchange student. The rest are faint archetypes. C+

Romance

Tai-Bo and Ben Yuen in Twilight’s Kiss

Breaking Fast (2020, US). Charming romcom. Arabic doctor (Haaz Sleiman) falls for American actor (Michael Cassidy) over Ramadan. They have baggage to work through before they can trust each other. The script indulges in romcom tropes but when conflict arrives it comes from an honest place. A

Cicada (2020, US). A recently out bisexual (Matt Fifer) dates a closeted man (Sheldon D. Brown). Each is a trauma survivor coping with PTSD. We follow their relationship through highs and lows. Both men are interesting enough to carry the low-key character study. The semi-autobiographical script provides well written arguments as the lovers test each other’s boundaries. B

The Strong Ones (Los Fuertes) (2019, Chile). A fine entry in the brooding romance genre. A visiting grad student (Samuel González) falls for a closeted fisherman (Antonio Altamirano). The actors have a playful chemistry that brings joy to a bittersweet story. Some third act melodrama feels unnecessary for a romance that’s already on borrowed time. But it does not detract from the film as a whole. B-

Twilight’s Kiss (Suk Suk) (2019, Hong Kong). 70-year-old cab driver (Tai-Bo) has an affair with a single dad (Ben Yuen). The romance is warm but melancholy is always near. Their unhappy families show the collateral damage a life in the closet can wreak. A subplot for single gay friends contrasts the challenges of growing old alone. A thoughtful analysis of a sad situation.  B

Thriller

Steven Silver in The Obituary of Tunde Johnson

The Carnivores (2020, US). Alice (Tallie Medel) resents her girlfriend’s (Lindsay Burdge) needy dog. When the dog vanishes, Alice begins having strange dreams. Did she do something terrible? A smart mix of psychological horror and pitch-black comedy. Not for vegans. B

Dry Wind (Vento Seco) (2020, Brazil). Closeted factory worker (Leandro Faria Lelo) becomes obsessed with a fit new employee. He begins having neon lit S&M fantasies. Is he embracing his sexuality or slipping into madness? Director Daniel Nolasco’s hypnotic imagery keeps the viewer off balance. The film is a potent mix of hardcore sex, giddy romance and existential dread. B

The Obituary of Tunde Johnson (2019, US). A gay black teen (Steven Silver) is murdered by a police officer. He awakes in his bed that morning with no memory of the event. He’ll be murdered by cops wherever he goes in a horrifying time loop. A clever conceit and a grim watch. It’s hard to invest in subplots for his privileged white friends. But that’s part of the point. B

Documentary

P.S. Burn This Letter Please

Ask Any Buddy (2020, US). Evan Purchell compiles porn from the 60’s through early 80’s into a time capsule of urban white gay life. The footage is presented without commentary. We see cruising spots, gay clubs and a lot of big mustaches. The goofy porn dialogue has a mix of romance and social satire that’s missing from the industry today. C+
Check out the accompanying podcast here.

The Capote Tapes (2020, US). Celebrities share their tales of writer Truman Capote. The 2005 and 2006 biopics show his toxic side. This documentary helped me understand the comedian that charmed high society before he sabotaged himself. An interesting film that leaves many questions unanswered. B-

House of Cardin (2019, Fashion). A tour of Pierre Cardin’s fashion empire. His models and employees gush over his designs but know little of the man himself. There’s no context offered for fashion novices. The film is a hagiography for the fans.  C

If It Were Love (Si C’était De L’amour) (2020, France). Gisèle Vienne choreographs a dance piece set at a pansexual rave. Filmmaker Patric Chiha captures the nuts and bolts of the process as dancers perfect individual movements and rhythms. The second half is spiced with gossipy backstage interviews. A slow, methodical film that should fascinate its target audience.  C+

P.S. Burn This Letter Please (2020, US). Retired drag performers discuss the NY scene of the 1950’s. Where they worked, what they wore and how they survived. Lacks the visceral thrills of films like Paris Is Burning or The Queen but the history it captures is no less important. The tale of a wig heist from the Metropolitan Opera merits a film of its own.  B-

Three Chords And A Lie (2020, US). Singer/songwriter Brandon Stansell was rejected by his family for being gay. A decade later he prepares for a concert in his hometown of Chattanooga. The interviews with him and his mother are so raw that it feels invasive to watch. He’s a gentle soul and a good son who deserves more respect than he’s gotten. B

Trends

There were also strong short films like the stop-motion drama The Fabric of You

The films above include

  • 12 Directors making their feature film debuts.
  • 7 stories with Happy Same-Sex Couples.
  • 7 Coming Out Scenes.
  • 6 stories that involve Social Media.
  • 6 stories that involve Hate Crimes.
  • 5 openly Trans Protagonists.
  • 3 skilled Child Actors.
  • 3 Funerals.
  • 2 openly Bi Protagonists.

My top three films? It’s a competitive field but I think I’ll go with Alice Junior, Breaking Fast and Cowboys.

Will you add these films to your watch list? Are streaming festivals the way of the future? For more reviews of LGBT+ media click here.