LGBT Movies: Outfest LA 2021 – Final Thoughts

Welcome back to LGBT Movies: Mordor Reviews Outfest LA 2021! Throughout this week, I’m 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. On Monday I talked about 7 of this year’s feature presentations, and on Wednesday I blew through 42 shorts. Today, I’m bringing it home with three more features and another 20 shorts from the festival’s Postcards from 2020, Latinxcellence, Girls Shorts, What a Girl Wants, and Transcendental sections. All films will be rated on a five-star (★★★★★) scale.

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Features

The Sixth Reel Call it “Rummage Sale: The Movie.” The Sixth Reel is just full of…stuff. Massive collections of movie memorabilia. A murderers’ row of queer character actors (and Tim Daly). A whole lot of repetitive and meaningless words. The titular sixth reel, found in the apartment of a recently deceased member of this circle of classic Hollywood collectors after a failure of an estate sale, belongs to Lon Chaney’s long-lost 1927 film London After Midnight. That this specific film is rediscovered doesn’t seem to be particularly important – perhaps rediscovering the uncut version of Greed would have been a little too on the nose – but it does at least give us a memorable recurring gag of two people dressed as characters from the film chasing after Jimmy, the acid-tongued leader of this incidental gang. 

The entire overlong runtime of the film amounts to introducing a near-endless string of characters and then introducing them all again, bracketed by interludes where we learn more about Jimmy and his life. Jimmy and, indeed, The Sixth Reel, are haunted by the past, by what has been lost: a film lost to time, a lover lost to AIDS, friends lost to old age. Where those latter ideas have been the emotional pillars of many a queer film, though, here they are afterthoughts, tacked on to lend pathos to an overstuffed script that is far too convinced of its own humor. Kudos, at the very least, for giving Margaret Cho and André De Shields well-deserved paychecks. 1/2

Potato Dreams of America

Potato Dreams of America Filmmaker Wes Hurley recounts his early life in Post-Soviet Russia and teenage years outside of Seattle as only a queer filmmaker could: with an endlessly inventive subversion of queer cinema and sitcom tropes, and a delightfully odd musical interlude. We’ve seen plenty of clichéd movies about the “power of movies,” but where Potato Dreams of America sets itself apart is in truly centering the film-viewing experience in the lives of its characters. For Potato, movies are a window onto his dreams, first of coming to America, then of living as a gay man. It’s reminiscent of Pedro Almodovar’s Pain & Glory, if that were a Russian camp fantasy film. 

With the shield of a quirky sense of humor, Potato is able to dissect the queer and immigrant experiences in America with all their contradictions. What happens when your dreams come true and they let you down? How can you feel at home when no one will let you set aside the past you’re escaping? Can we ever let go of our generational trauma, or are we doomed to keep passing on acquired hatreds? Potato might not have all the answers, but it tries to hilarious effect. ★★★ 1/2

We Need to Do Something My roommate makes me watch a lot of horror schlock, her favorite flavor of junk food. It is thus with more than a little bit of surprise and much amusement that I heard her say “I think some people need to accept that not every idea they have should be a movie,” at the end of We Need to Do Something. The basics amount to: Mel and her family decamp to their very sturdily built bathroom to ride out an evening of severe storms after the tornado sirens go off, but a collapsed tree prevents them from escaping, leading to hunger, insanity, and tragedy. Aside from occasional flashbacks to Mel’s tumultuous (TW for scenes of self-harm) relationship with her girlfriend Amy, the entire film takes place in this extremely red bathroom. Consider it an at times quite gory, apocalyptic chamber(pot) piece. 

The idea that God is punishing you for being gay is well-trodden territory, complicated and undercut here by witchcraft; that homosexuality and witchcraft are only two of several layers of unnecessary metaphor (cue discussion of “walking corpse syndrome,” extensive Garden of Eden/loss of innocence symbolism courtesy of a rattlesnake, and loss of tongue as lack of voice) is indicative of this film’s particular brand of overwrought, milquetoast philosophy. Rough sound mixing, wooden acting, and a verbally abusive father character whose primary purpose seems to be breaking the F-bomb record set by The Wolf of Wall Street are only somewhat countered by at-times impressive practical effects.

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Shorts

COVID Summer [18+] Apparently for filmmaker Todd Verow, the first summer of COVID included butts and deer, the occasional protest, a whole lot of webcam masturbation, meditative looks at the New York skyline, and pretty much no thought given at all to the pandemic. 1/2

Queer Isolation A reflection on the support systems torn down by the pandemic, the vulnerable people left behind and endangered by flawed economic systems, and the resilience of queer people is brought down by trading in the idea that staunch allies are just closeted and very poorly-fitting plastic masks with huge gaps are “so much better.” 1/2

Gayme On Lifestyles of the bored and angsty, now including mocking of safe pandemic behaviors! If you want to watch a series of uncomfortable Zoom interactions and half-hearted nods to casual gaymer culture, this is the place for you. 1/2

Almost a Year A striking reminder of the ways the pandemic affects vulnerable communities, the way that the challenges can pile up – you’re overworked, underpaid, immunocompromised, regularly in close quarters with a woman who could not care less about how her lifestyle choices might affect you – and the silver linings that are waiting to be found. PSA: learn about cross-contamination and stop constantly grabbing the front of your masks, people! ★★★ 1/2

It’ll Be Over Soon We all repeated this mantra throughout 2020, praying that we could will it into existence. For Ben, an Australian stuck in the U.S. during the pandemic to avoid his work visa lapsing, the mantra has become a way of life as he leads a newly mundane existence, separated from his loved ones, ritualizing his routines, and pretending he couldn’t escape the hellscape of pandemic-era America at any time if he just asked. ★★

What’s Left Inside “What do you do when you get rejected by your boyfriend and the whole world on the same day?” A whole lot of nothing, apparently. What’s Left Inside wants to be a thriller, playing tense music over boring scenes of boredom, building to a lackluster climax that becomes all too obvious when a movie about wallowing in your misery keeps asking if the pandemic is all a lie.

Valiente What happens when a relationship that is only about sex becomes more real, but the secrets unveiled are more than you expected? Valiente does some heavy lifting towards destigmatizing HIV+ people, though its relentlessly negative conclusion undercuts an otherwise admirable effort. ★★ 1/2

Quinceañero From the creators of bi lighting, it’s trans lighting! Quinceañaro is a mostly delightful musical looking at the arbitrariness of strongly gendered traditions and the unfair expectation that children should be content simply with not having it as hard as their parents did. A quite unnecessary late twist throws things off-kilter, devaluing major character growth. ★★★

Pine You, too, can purge the old memories and create great, empowering new ones on your very own topless camping trip! Buy now and we’ll cram in as much symbolism as we can, including chiming bells, firestarting, and literally throwing away what you’d like to forget! As thickly as Pine lays it on, it’s quite effective and well-made. ★★★

Noor & Layla Two Muslim-American lesbians go through a bad break-up in reverse, from the nasty fighting through the loving embraces and awkward early dates to the 21st-century meet-cute. Along the way they grapple with their traditions, leaving them behind and picking them back up as they separate and merge and separate again. ★★★ 1/2

Roadkill An empowering story of finding quiet dignity in who you are and what you do, and sharing that dignity with others, even under the harsh, judging eyes of a rural community that has pushed you down for your entire life. ★★★ 1/2

Pure

Pure The mandatory party scene bi lighting abounds in this story of the queering of cotillion in a Black community in the Southern U.S. It’s a simple but effective story that hinges on a potent central scene that draws a parallel between the ways that Black women’s hair and sexuality are treated. ★★★★

Plaisir Gorgeous, sun-drenched cinematography frames this story of a young American woman who tries to escape her loneliness by working for the summer at an artists’ compound in France. Displacement and isolation are slowly replaced by acceptance, belonging, and freedom. ★★★★

Seasick You know that anxiety you feel when you accidentally send a text to the wrong person? Okay, now imagine that anxiety if you’re closeted and that text is to your crush describing her as “the love of my life,” accompanied by a stealthily shot photo. Seasick does a solid job bridging the gap between a comedy of errors and a tense drama. ★★★ 1/2

Ruth A minute-long day in the life of a…woman in love with her motorcycle? Yes, I’m sure it’s trying to say something about finding freedom in finding yourself, but it really does not come across here. At least she’s good at maintaining speed. 1/2

Thó A solid primer on asexuality, what it means, and how it’s expressed, contained within a meditation on the pressures people put on their partners to be exactly what they want. TW for scenes of sexual assault.
★★★ 1/2

Thank You for Being Here A volatile, pithy, and sweet film about the many complications of sexuality, relationships, friendships, and morality as two queer roommates argue while awaiting the results of one’s pregnancy test. ★★★ 1/2

And Then

And Then “It’s strange, though, looking like you belong here and feeling like a complete outsider.” Manu, a queer Japanese-American artist, goes to Tokyo to relearn how to find inspiration and belonging in the people and places around you. Lovely cinematography and two standout lead actresses make And Then stand out from the pack. ★★★★

Between Us The challenges of a queer relationship in rural Japan are at center stage as Kei, a transgender man, feels the immense pressure put on him by his partner Erin to leave his lifelong home for Tokyo. As Kei and Erin learn to stop looking past one another’s issues, the challenges of adapting gendered traditions to modern times – such as the onsen, an environment that has always been a fraught experience for queer people – and breaking down the artificial barriers we’ve erected between each other start to feel a little less insurmountable. ★★★★ 1/2 (Header image is from Between Us.)

Only for the Night Occasionally visceral imagery, truly terrible acting, and no discernible plot undercut the obvious lesson that sometimes one night can mean everything to someone who’s lost and waiting to be found.  

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Did you watch any of Outfest’s virtual offerings? What did you think of this year’s festival? Sound off in the comments below!