LGBT Movies: Outfest LA 2021 – Features Edition

Welcome one and all to this special edition of LGBT Movies! A huge thank you to SadClown for letting me take over this slot this week. Over the next few days, I’ll be posting my thoughts on more than 70 (!!) of the 170+ (!!!!) short and feature films that screened at this year’s virtual edition of Outfest LA from August 13 through August 22, 2021 (many streaming options are actually available through August 25, so you still have time to check some of these out!). As is always the case with these virtual film festivals, some of the bigger films were limited to in-person viewing only, so you’ll have to wait until it’s on Prime to hear about Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, but even without its single biggest premiere, Outfest LA 2021 had plenty to offer for everyone across the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. 

In today’s edition, I’ll be focusing on seven of the feature films showcased over the past week. Several of these also screened at Frameline 2021 in June, and you can read SadClown’s take on them here. Come back at this time on Wednesday for reviews of several dozen shorts, and we’ll close things out on Friday with all of the features and shorts I still haven’t had a chance to check out! All films will be rated on a five-star (★★★★★) scale.

– – –

A Distant Place We open on the heaving side of a sheep, the only sound the birds overhead. A young girl runs by as other sheep meander and nibble. Nearby, a bearded man kneels on the neck of one of them, shearing its thick, matted wool. The girl comes upon a sheep lying dead in the field; she yells for the man: “Omma!” (“Mommy!”). 

That the first line spoken in A Distant Place plays with traditional gender roles like this speaks to its commentary on found families, parenting, and the challenges of being queer in contemporary rural South Korea. Jin-woo works for Joong-man on a ranch in Hwacheon, in the mountainous, forested northern reaches of South Korea. He lives on the ranch with his daughter Seol and Joong-man’s mother (Myeong-soon) and adult daughter (Moon-kyeong). They’ve settled into comfortable routines, with Seol flitting between each on their duties around the farm as they wait for one of the sheep to give birth and for the arrival of Jin-Woo’s (boy)friend Hyeon-min. Not long after Hyeon-min’s seamless incorporation into this little family, another character enters to blow it apart: Eun-yeong, Jin-woo’s sister and Seol’s biological mother. 

The film settles into an unfortunate and familiar pattern early on: Hyeon-min and Jin-woo find happiness in one another and in their isolated, breathtaking, painterly surroundings; some terrible event disrupts their brief idyll; they argue; rinse and repeat. Layer upon layer of drama intrudes, from Eun-yeong’s arrival to Myeong-soon’s illness to how they’re treated by the formerly welcoming local community to the jarring and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it introduction of a supernatural element late in the film that spurs the final act but is plainly unnecessary. A lesser film would wallow in all of this trauma, punishing its queer characters further, but instead A Distant Place tenderly and intelligently pulls at the threads of this nontraditional family, exploring queer happiness and what it means to be a parent, replete with stellar acting and stunning cinematography. 

No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics For decades, queerness in comic books and strips was heavily coded, if it existed at all. It had been banned by the Comics Code Authority (CCA), a censorship scheme that was implemented in 1954 by comics industry trade groups to avoid government regulation after the publication of Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that comics were corrupting America’s youth. No Straight Lines tells the story of the rise of the underground comics that pushed back on this censorship, allowing queer people to define themselves and pioneering new comic forms like the graphic memoirs that have become such a dominant force today. 

As a historical piece, No Straight Lines is perfectly functional, telling the story of queer comics from the beginning of the CCA, through Stonewall, the AIDS epidemic, the rise of contemporary indie comics, and the growth in popularity of webcomics. Where it falters is by not venturing beyond a straightforward, talking heads approach and not having much of a thesis. The only real through-line is the bravery these artists displayed in making queer comics in an oppressive environment, and while that may have sufficed in a more contained piece focusing just on the height of the CCA, by trying to look more expansively at the history of queer comics and the echoes of that oppression in today’s art (well, today’s art if today was the late aughts), No Straight Lines left me wanting more. It treats Alison Bechdel’s masterful Fun Home as the ne plus ultra of queer comics, and thus the end of the story – five years before the CCA was fully dropped and 15 years before today, when queer writers and artists are finally breaking into mainstream comics and our stories are being told more publicly than ever before. Intercutting short interviews with some of today’s indie artists helps, but they are there more to appreciate their predecessors than to continue the story. No Straight Lines has grand ambitions, and it gives a platform to voices that an unforgiving industry tried to bury, but in both form and function it ultimately disappoints. 

Jump, Darling My notes on this film have two things underlined and in all-caps: “CLORIS LEACHMAN” and “BLEAK.” Those three words are an apt summary of the tense, shallow, triggering drama on display in Jump, Darling. After a harsh exchange with his vaguely self-loathing boyfriend causes him to flee drunkenly from his big break, aspiring drag performer Russell (a hot-tempered, hard-drinking Thomas Duplessie) decamps to his grandmother’s (Leachman, in her last major film role) home in rural Ontario to take her car off her hands and steal some money. With nowhere to turn, Russell decides to stick around, taking care of his ailing grandmother and trying to bring some big-city personality to the small town’s staid gay bar. 

The film alternates between heated arguments and (darkly lit, poorly mixed) triumphant drag numbers, punctuated by random mystical moments (largely doors popping open of their own accord to reveal already-lit rooms and closets where Russell can plumb the depths of his family’s generational trauma). Leachman is at her bitter, biting, weary best, but even she can’t do much to elevate the stark happenings on display, full of stigmatization of drag performers and negative portrayals of mental illness. Jump, Darling draws the tears, but rarely have they felt so unearned. 

Boy Meets Boy We meet Johannes in the dance studio, pouring out his emotions in an intense number, the scene drowned in sunny yellows and whites; we meet Harry in a hotel room, taking pictures of his asshole and moving from one Grindr conquest to the next, surrounded by dark, dour blues and blacks. The two meet in the middle of the day on the dance floor of a club in Berlin, the two palettes merging into a vibrant, dreamy, pulsing purple and red haze. What follows is yet another booze-soaked, drug-fueled, navel-gazing, ho-hum gay odyssey.

The central philosophical debate to which Boy Meets Boy aspires is that between traditionalism and modernity, monogamous heteronormativity versus polyamorous, transgressive queerness. What we get is 70 minutes of two mildly stoned dudes arguing about hookup apps and open relationships. The film likes neither of its protagonists, with Johannes approaching the world wide-eyed and naively idealistic, and Harry serving as the archetypical morally superior hipster asshole, carrying an actual alarm clock in his bag and sarcastically calling Berlin “the new beating heart of neoliberalism.” There’s little joy to be found here, despite the compelling chemistry between the two leads, and even less of a viewpoint.  1/2

Boulevard! A Hollywood Story The long multimedia history of Sunset Boulevard receives another rewrite with the interesting but overlong talking heads documentary Boulevard! A Hollywood Story. The 1950 film was nominated for 11 Oscars (and won three), while the 1993 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical won seven Tonys, including Best Musical and Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical (Glenn Close). A film version of the musical is in the early stages of production. Boulevard! explores what happened in between those two monumental achievements, with the star of the original film, Gloria Swanson, recruiting songwriting partners and lovers Dickson Hughes and Richard Stapley to write a musical adaptation of her last major starring role. 

The story of this trio is fascinating, resulting in the drafting of an entire musical that never saw the light of day and ending abruptly when Swanson embarks on a doomed pursuit of Stapley while he and Hughes are living with her in New York. There are several rewarding directions it could go, from the way Hollywood treats (and still treats) aging actresses and gay men to the modern impact and significance of Sunset Boulevard, but Boulevard! is content filling the time with repetition of the established history, only briefly touching on these other fruitful avenues. There are some formally interesting decisions, most notably departing from the endless repetition of the same dozen or so stock photos or (God forbid) poorly acted recreations that plagues many interview-based documentaries by interspersing brief animated cutscenes in the style of advertisements from the 1950s. Ultimately, in its current form Boulevard! would function much better as a short.  1/2


Sweetheart If you’re reading this, odds are you could write most of the plot details of Sweetheart yourself: angsty, determinedly sarcastic, recently out teenage lesbian AJ goes on a lengthy caravan holiday with her dysfunctional family, doggedly pursued by an unspoken incident that they hold over her head and ill-equipped to react to her feelings for Isla, a lifeguard at the camp. 

Like most films in this vein, Sweetheart balances its exploration of AJ’s interiority with that of her family, and the traumas and decisions that have made them what they are. Where it sets itself apart is in questioning what it means to be yourself on your own terms, and not letting your family and friends define how you express your queerness based on how others do. AJ is a live wire, coiled tight and ready to lash out at anyone that steps out of line. She sits uncomfortably between the expectations of the people who’ve known her her entire life and the opportunity for reinvention presented by a new group of friends in a new place, and in that discomfort she’s able to grapple with her unhappiness in comparison to the unfamiliar joy she sees in others. 

Sweetheart doesn’t go anywhere unexpected – the “unspoken incident” is, of course, held in reserve by AJ’s family to be weaponized against her when the plot demands a bit more drama (though it frustratingly is never fully explained); pitched arguments dominate the second act of the film, leading to a brief and predictable denouement. While you’ve probably seen this movie a dozen times, it excels in interrogating the way we write stories for each other and can’t handle it when they aren’t followed perfectly. 

Baloney Baloney is a pleasantly succinct and straightforward history of “Baloney, San Francisco’s only all-gay male revue.” Baloney endeavors to show that gay men can be sexy without being stereotypical, and that everyone is wanted by someone (though if you’re fat, you better be bearded and harnessed!), and Baloney showcases the tight-knit artistic community that the show has birthed. There’s an appealingly scrappy, working-man’s sensibility on display as Baloney’s creators, Michael Phillis and Rory Davis choreograph and host rehearsals from their small living room – fitting, given the focus they want to put on everyday desires from everyday men. Everyone involved does this because it’s their passion, a creative outlet that they don’t have in their work lives, and that is conveyed in what they create. Even as the COVID pandemic intrudes, this community stays strong, putting on outdoor, windows up or masks on carwash performances.

What these men are doing is inspirational, and the film around them has a propulsive energy, cutting between interviews, filmed performances, and rehearsals for a new show. Along the way they try to deconstruct heady topics like what it means to be gay, the demonization of sex work, and the toxic masculinity that pervades so many contemporary gay communities. It’s a lot to cram into 70 minutes, leaving it feeling a bit scattershot, but it’s hard to fault them for trying. ★★★

– – –

Did you watch any of Outfest’s virtual offerings? Sound off in the comments below!