Showcasing more than 100 features, documentaries, and shorts, Frameline, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, opens June 19. The opening night selection is the local area premiere of The Case Against 8, a documentary about marriage equality in California. The festival closes ten days later, on June 29, with the premiere of I Feel Like Disco, a disarming German film about a gay young man who escapes from his drab life in imaginative ways.
With all there is to see at the festival, here are ten hand picked highlights:
Oakland resident Cheryl Dunye’s Black Is Blue (part of the Realness & Revelations shorts program on June 20, 7:00 pm, Roxie) is an intimate, engaging, and insightful drama about a FTM apartment security guard named Black (trans actor Kingston Farady) who discusses his worldview for the camera in direct address. He mentions how people are suspicious of him, his anxiety about showering at the gym, and, in the most poignant expression of his emotions, wanting to “clap against everything around me, like lightning.” As Black considers dating, past relationships, and encounters homophobia, his past catches up with him, leading to an intense confrontation. Dunye’s short, shot in her trademark “Dunye-mentary” style, is so captivating, it deserves to be a feature.
The exceptional Five Dances (June 20, 7:00pm,Victoria), set in the modern dance world, is a hypnotic drama that showcases four performers and a choreographer working on a routine for an upcoming show. The story, which alternates between narrative and performance, benefits from the actor/dancers’ assured body language. Filmed largely in a Soho studio, Five Dances has Chip (Ryan Steele), an 18 year-old from Kansas, living his dream of dancing in a company. His mother wants him to return home, but he prefers to stay in New York—even though he is, it is revealed, homeless. A fellow performer, Katie (Catherine Miller) offers to take care of Chip, while Theo (Reed Luplau), another member of the company, initiates a sexual relationship with him. Writer/director Alan Brown makes these dramatic interactions involving by shooting Five Dances in an almost documentary style. Yet it is the various dance sequences that break up the narrative that truly form the story. Chip and Theo’s relationship is best depicted without words, in a highly erotic nude pas de deux. And give Five Dances extra credit for not making the gay male dancers stereotypes. Steele gives a remarkable performance as Chip, but the entire film is impressive.
Broken Heart Land (June 21, 11:00am, Victoria) is a poignant, inspiring documentary that shows how Nancy Harrington transformed the grief she experience after her gay son Zack’s suicide into activism. The film chronicles the efforts to speak out about her son, join a PFLAG-like group, MOM—Mothers of Many—and campaign for equal rights for LGBT citizens in Norman, OK, including supporting a City Council race for the openly gay Jackie Farley. This moving film gets up close and personal with the Harrington family and their supporters and detractors as it even-handedly shows the impact that one gay young man’s death has on the Bible belt community. (NOTE: If you miss this at the fest, Broken Heart Land will screen on PBS June 24, check listings).
Pelo Malo (June 21, 1:30pm, Roxie) is an absorbing drama, set in Caracas, Venezuela. In it, 9 year-old Junior (Samuel Lange Zambrano) is determined to straighten his unruly curly hair for his school photo. Junior’s mother, Marta (Samantha Castillo), however, disapproves of her son’s constant primping. The temporarily unemployed Marta, who is raising Junior and his infant brother on her own, also does not like that her elder son is not particularly masculine: he sings pop tunes, and dances with his eyes closed, waving his arms in the air. Marta tells a doctor that she fears her son is gay and that he will suffer. (She also wonders if it is her fault). Junior, meanwhile, aggravates his mother by learning new songs, putting mayonnaise in his hair, and developing a crush on Mario, a handsome local grocer. Pelo Malo is a gritty, absorbing film about Junior (and Marta) wanting to escape from their hardscrabble lives only to have to face the reality their difficult situation. The film’s authenticity makes each character sympathetic, right up to the powerful, provocative ending.
Like the clothes made by Yves Saint Laurent, Jalil Lespert’s biopic of the fashion designer is a stylish and elegant production. However, the runway scenes are more successful and entertaining than the relationship drama between Yves (Pierre Niney) and his lover/business partner Pierre (Guillaume Gallienne). Yves Saint Laurent (June 21, 7:00pm, Victoria) offers some insights into his thoughts about life and fashion, but a lousy voice-over narration by Pierre, and clunky moments—his drink/drug/sex binges—dilute the film’s power. If Yves Saint Laurent does a commendable job of presenting the life and clothes of the designer, it unfortunately feels glossed over at times. In the arresting Swedish film, Something Must Break (June 24, 1:15pm, Castro), Sebastian (Saga Becker) is a feminine man who falls in love with Andreas (Iggy Malmborg), a man who saves him from a beating in a men’s room one night. The way these two men look at each other captures them falling in love. When Andreas checks Sebastian for ticks, it is an extremely erotic encounter, complete with rimming and splatters of cum. Their relationship grows more intense when Sebastian spies on Andreas and follows him. But Andreas soon asserts, “I’m not gay.” “Me either,” replies Sebastian, who wants to be known as Ellie. Sebastian claims he must destroy himself to become his “dream sister” (Ellie), and these moments are quite powerful, as is a stunningly beautiful, if slightly shocking, slow-motion scene featuring Ellie being pissed on as Peggy Lee plays on the soundtrack. The candid, graphic, eroticism certainly elevates this romance, but it is the presentation of issues of gender and sexual identity that truly resonates.
Another must-see film is The Dog (June 25, 1:30pm, Castro), a dazzling documentary about John Wojtowicz, a man who robbed a bank to pay for his lover’s sex change. Wojtowicz’s crime was the inspiration for the classic film, Dog Day Afternoon. Using interviews with the late subject as well as testimonies, film clips, and photographs, filmmakers Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren tell a story that is truly stranger than fiction—and far more complicated that what the Al Pacino film depicted. Wojtowicz is quite a character; he obviously enjoys the opportunity to tell his story. It’s a whopper, full of hilarious and head-spinning revelations.
Lilting (June 25, 6:45pm, Castro) is a subtle chamber drama about the communication gap between Richard (out actor Ben Whishaw) and Junn (Pei Pei Cheng). Both are mourning the loss of Kai (Andrew Leung), Junn’s son and, unbeknownst to his mother, Richard’s lover. But Richard doesn’t speak Mandarin, and Junn does not speak English, so Richard hires Vann (Naomi Christie) to help translate, and bridge the gulf between them. Lilting is a bit stagy given the construct of Junn and Richard each talking to Kai—Junn imagines her son; Richard remembers him in flashbacks. And the film is a little static with Vann translating much of the conversations. But the film deftly addresses the loss both mother and lover suffer. Junn feels lonely and suffocated, while Richard copes with survivor’s guilt and navigating the prickly Junn’s jealousy. Lilting builds to a powerful climax, and the performances by Whishaw and Cheng, especially, are very affecting.
What It Was (June 25, 9:00pm, Roxie) is a poetic meditation on longing and desire as Adina (Arlene Chico-Lugo) faces her fears and searches for love and self-worth in New York City. The story hopscotches back and forth in time, chronicling Adina’s relationships with Toni (Deirdre Herlihy), Hilary (Melissa Navia), and Mondi (Brandon Smalls)—each of whom offers affection and complications. The film is beautifully shot, with lovely scenes of Adina in the city, on the subway, bridges, and streets. An especially intimate sequence has Hilary painting Adina’s body. If What It Was feels pretentious at times with Adina’s poignant voice-overs, such moments only contribute to the film’s ephemeral quality.
Open Up to Me (June 25, 9:15pm, Castro) in an intriguing Finnish film about the transgender Maarit (Leea Klemola), a cleaning woman who is mistaken for a therapist by Sami (Peter Franzén). Sami asks Maarit for intimate advice regarding his marriage to Julia (Ria Kataja). Maarit soon initiates an affair with Sami, which eventually causes some ripples. Meanwhile, Maarit learns she is a suspect in a criminal investigation. If Open Up to Me gets contrived as many of the characters and situations connect up, the film is buoyed by a strong performance from Klemola, who never makes Maarit pitiful, only sympathetic. She is a wise, well-meaning woman, and even if she crosses boundaries, all of the film’s main characters act inappropriately. This is part of what makes the soapy Open Up to Me so enjoyable.
© 2014 Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” You can follow him on Twitter @garymkramer