Outfest LA 2023 formally ended on July 23 – though virtual screenings continue through July 30 – amidst major turmoil for the film industry. With the Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild of America continuing to strike in the largest labor action in the United States in decades, the small, independent queer films highlighted in the Outfest selection remain more important – and more precarious – than ever. As I did last Monday, I’ll be reviewing a sample of this year’s feature film selection, and encourage all of you to take a look at the complete selection and join some virtual screenings while you still can.
The intense and all too often violent hatred towards queer people bred by religious fervor is turned towards Nino, a privileged Argentinian pre-teen, in the dreadfully boring Almamula. After a gruesome gay-bashing incident, Nino’s family decamps to the devoutly Catholic rural village where his father and his employees spend their days clear-cutting the forest and destroying the houses of its inhabitants. Upon their arrival, they learn that a local boy – the grandson of their housekeeper, Maria – has gone missing in the forest, and that the rumored culprit is the almamula, a mythical creature who finds and kills those who commit carnal sins. As Nino’s feelings of alienation from Catholicism and distance from his absentee father, resentful sister, and irrepressibly horny mother grow, he takes increasingly disturbing steps to lure the almamula to him. The film languors in scene after scene doing little else but establishing Nino’s family as terrible people and the local populace as kind and less judgmental. It’s in the class politics sketchily established by these interactions that Almamula comes closest to being anything more than superficial: the callousness with which Nino’s mother treats Maria, going so far as to threaten to fire her for not being back to work only a week after her grandson’s disappearance; the way Nino’s mother and his sister Natalia and her friends fetishize the men who work for the family; and his father’s land seizure all speak to a critique of the family that never becomes more than suggestion, and certainly never feels essential to Nino’s personal plight. Even the visual metaphors the film attempts to establish, like repeated use of stigmata caused by the barbed wire separating Nino’s family’s estate from the forbidden forest, are mixed at best. The mythology and political undercurrent that form Almamula’s foundation are ripe for exploration, but unfortunately the only punches it doesn’t pull are the ones thrown by Nino’s bullies in the film’s opening scene.
The highlight of this year’s Outfest is Fancy Dance (featured in the header image), the spectacular feature debut of Seneca-Cayuga documentarian Erica Tremblay. Anchored by a bravura performance from Lily Gladstone – soon to be seen in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon – Fancy Dance follows Gladstone’s Jax as she tries to get the authorities to care about finding her missing sister Tawi and fights to maintain custody of Tawi’s daughter Roki. Tremblay has assembled a compelling and absolutely infuriating portrait of a modern Native American life on the edge – Jax pawning whatever she can find to make ends meet and support Roki; the FBI completely ignoring Tawi’s case, but Child Protective Services showing up to put the screws to Jax; doors opening up, for better and for worse, as soon as Jax and Tawi’s white father enters the picture. A mixture of intimate family drama and thriller, with biting humor sprinkled throughout, Fancy Dance subtly castigates a system that repeatedly puts Jax in a terrible position, then punishes her for being there. Jax is fire and brimstone, an immovable force that will help the people that matter to her at all costs. She is everything a mother should be to Roki, teaching her how to exist in the world that has been forced on them and ensuring her immersion in their people’s culture and traditions. Beyond the phenomenal performances, Fancy Dance is a sensitive, fast-paced, gorgeously shot film with a tight script, propulsive score, and immense heart.
The long-gestating adaptation of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s beloved young adult novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival and will finally transition from the festival circuit to cinemas nationwide in September. Aristotle and Dante tells the story of two Mexican-American teenagers living in El Paso across two summers in the 1980s and grappling with new and old traumas and complexly intertwined questions of racial and sexual identity. Max Pelayo’s Aristotle is a powder keg, always on the edge of sudden, violent rage. He stands in sharp contrast to Reese Gonzalez’s tender, quietly flamboyant Dante, whose preoccupation with what it means to be Mexican is more academic than Ari’s very real questions about his heritage and the freedom Dante’s upper middle class upbringing grants him. Aitch Alberto’s adaptation of the novel carries over the original’s flaws: this is very much Ari’s story – Dante exists primarily to spur Ari’s growth, but the latter is so internalized that even for a remarkably emotive actor like Pelayo it feels like it comes in sudden, inorganic bursts. Moreover, whatever character development is afforded to Dante happens entirely offscreen, in the form of letters to Ari read in voiceover. The supporting cast shines throughout, particularly Eva Longoria as Dante’s mother, Eugenio Derbez as Ari’s stoic and soft-spoken father, and a tragically underused Isabella Gomez as Ari’s frenemy Gina. The film makes great use of its 1980s setting without overdoing it, from the synth- and glam rock-heavy soundtrack to timeless costuming to subtle hints of relevant current events like a news broadcast on the AIDS crisis in the background of one pivotal scene. A lovingly shot story of the sort of friendship that could only come to life in the liminal magic of a sun-drenched summer, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe will please fans of the book and newcomers alike, but it’s hard not to feel frustrated by the uneven portrayal of Ari as someone who does things while Dante only ever has things happen to him.
Sam Shahid’s admiring but strongly biased documentary Hidden Master: The Legacy of George Platt Lynes centers on the life and work of the under-recognized early 20th century photographer George Platt Lynes. Lynes made his living taking portraits of Hollywood and Broadway stars and as the first official photographer for the New York City Ballet, but his passion – and the area in which he was most pioneering – was as a photographer of male nudes. Lynes’s work largely disappeared after his all-too-soon death in 1955, with a treasured selection stored in the archives of the Kinsey Institute and the bulk of his surviving work languishing for decades in the private collection of conservative megadonor Fred Koch. It’s hard not to draw a comparison to Ryan White’s fantastic Coded, an Outfest 2021 selection that told the similar story of forgotten illustrator JC Leyendecker. Whereas the latter dissected Leyendecker’s life and legacy, Hidden Master seems much more interested in sitting with the beauty of Lynes’s photographs and their subjects. Scene after scene highlights interviewees who knew Lynes talking about how attractive he was and how much he loved photographing beautiful men – with an emphasis on beautiful – but the film is disinterested, for example, in talking about the role that Lynes and his contemporaries played in creating and reinforcing harmful beauty standards. It’s briefly suggested that many of Lynes’s subjects may have been coerced into posing for him, but it’s treated with a wink and a nudge. Similarly, the film hints that Lynes may have taken a more aggressive and coercive approach to his sex life in his later years, but it’s much more interested in lionizing his progressive role as the third in publisher Monroe Wheeler and novelist Glenway Wescott’s open relationship. Even in discussing the way Koch kept Lynes’s work behind closed doors for nearly 30 years, Hidden Master refuses to engage with the ethical questions posed by wealthy collectors locking up important art history for the sake of collecting. Lynes makes for a complicated and fascinating subject, whose art feels avant-garde even today but comes with baggage; it’s a pity Hidden Master is more interested in hagiography than in unpacking it.
Vuk Lungulov-Klotz’s Mutt made history when lead actor Lio Mehiel became the first trans person to win the acting award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Mehiel plays Feña, a caustic trans man in New York whose life is turned upside down in a 24 hour period that sees him encountering John, an ex-boyfriend he hasn’t seen since before transitioning; his estranged sister Zoe; and his father, visiting from Chile for the first time since he started transitioning. As Feña stumbles through this stressful day and one stroke of bad luck after another occurs, the films falters under the weight of the unbelievable pile of coincidences it builds to keep the stakes high. Where the film most succeeds is in conveying the challenges of integrating trans identity into preexisting relationships, with purposefully claustrophobic camerawork and a series of searing monologues from Feña to the people reentering his life. Feña makes for a difficult messenger, though, as he lashes out at everyone around him, the pent-up rage constantly simmering away just barely below the surface. The audience is clearly meant to sympathize with Feña, and Mehiel works admirably to earn that sympathy, establishing that Feña is flailing and his anger is largely defensive, but after the umpteenth example of Feña refusing to treat others with the same grace that he demands from them, it’s hard not to applaud late in the film when a character yells “People don’t hate you because you’re trans, they hate you because you’re a f***ing asshole!” Though its main character may be challenging and its central conceit cumbersome, Mutt excels as a portrait of a queer life on the verge of a breakthrough.