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    Fifteen Highlights and Lowlights from Frameline43

    By Gary Kramer–

    The 43rd edition of Frameline will unspool on area screens June 20–30. The LGBT film festival opens with Vita & Virginia and closes ten days later with Gay Chorus Deep South. In between, there are more than one hundred features, shorts and documentaries to see, as well as panels and parties to attend.

    This year’s Frameline Award will be presented to Rodney Evans on June 26 at 4 pm at the Castro Theatre. The festival will screen a 15th anniversary of Evans’ narrative debut, Brother to Brother, at 1 pm, followed by the tribute and a screening of his latest film, Vision Portraits, at 4 pm.

    Meanwhile, here are fifteen highlights and lowlights (in chronological order) screening at this year’s fest.

     Fireflies (June 20, 10 pm, Castro; June 22, 9:30 pm, Victoria) is a poignant, artfully made drama that depicts the connection that develops between Ramin (Arash Marandi), an Iranian exiled in Vera Cruz, Mexico, and Guillermo (Luis Alberti), a laborer he meets. The characters are both lost, stuck and trying to move on. Their palpable sense of despair is moving—especially as the lonely Ramin often looks longingly into the distance. There is considerable sexual tension between the men, most notably during a beach scene, or when Guillermo visits Ramin in his bedroom. Writer/director Bani Khoshnoudi asks viewers to fill in some blanks, but that approach helps viewers to engage with the characters. Marandi gives an affecting, internal performance; a scene of Ramin laughing-crying conveys his conflicted emotions. If Guillermo’s character is slightly underdeveloped, Luis Alberti smolders with intensity.

    This Is Not Berlin (June 21, 6:45 pm, Victoria; June 24, 3:45 pm, Castro) is an affectionate portrait of youth—gay and straight—in 1980s Mexico City. Director/co-writer Hari Sama immerses viewers in the period’s counterculture to share the heady experiences of two friends, Carlos (Xabiani Ponde de León) and Gera (José Antonio Toledano). They explore sex, drugs and punk music to escape from their middle-class society and stifling conformity. This atmospheric film may have some narrative contrivances, but its rebelliousness rings true.

    End of the Century (June 21, 9:30 pm, Castro; June 29, 9:30 pm, Victoria) is an absolutely hypnotic romance. Ocho (Juan Barberini) hooks up with Javi (Ramon Pujol) in Barcelona. Their tryst is erotic, but it becomes something more complicated when Javi confesses: “We’ve met before.” Cut to twenty years earlier … End of the Century unfolds slowly, deliberately and it plays with time, memory and imagination in ways that will provoke viewers. It also features a scene of the guys dancing that is pure magic.

    Benjamin (June 22, 7 pm, Castro), the sophomore effort by writer/director Simon Amstell, is alternately charming and cringe-inducing. In this romantic comedy that is both romantic and darkly funny, the title character (Colin Morgan) is an insecure filmmaker about to premier his sophomore feature. He falls quickly for a soulful French singer, Noah (Phénix Brossard), who is studying music at a nearby school. Benjamin is a bit gawky, and often says the wrong thing, which is amusing and horrifying all at once. He is clearly unable to read the signals that Noah is sending to him, which makes their relationship both sweet and tenuous. Things get complicated when Harry (Jack Rowan), the star of his film, also expresses a sexual interest in Benjamin. Benjamin generates much of its humor out of the awkward encounters Benjamin has, such as one with his ex, Paul (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), while at dinner with Noah and his parents. Nevertheless, it is easy to root for Benjamin and his friends, even if they are their own worst enemies.

     The emotional documentary One Taxi Ride (June 23, 4 pm, Roxie) chronicles the journey of healing for Erick, a twenty-something gay Mexican who suffered traumatic sexual abuse as a teenager. Erick claims he is “tired of hiding and living a lie,” and decides to tell his boyfriend Rodolfo about an incident from his past that he has long kept secret. While Rodolfo is compassionate after Erick’s confession, a later, related discussion raises issues of truth and trust between the guys. As Erick tries to process his feelings, he recounts his experiences to his family in a scene that is the highlight of One Taxi Ride. The dialogue Erick opens up about sexual abuse resonates with his family members, and, as the film’s stirring coda shows, many other people have been afraid to discuss rape and sexual abuse in Mexican society. Erick’s courage to tell his story is inspiring, and this film is important and necessary for providing an example of bravery and support for victims.

     Family Members (June 23, 11 am Victoria; June 30, 4:15 pm, Castro) is a patchy drama from Argentina. The film has siblings Lucas (Tomås Wicz), a 17-year-old coming to terms with his sexuality, and Gilda (Laila Maltz), who has been separated from the family for a spell, arriving in a coastal town to take care of their mother’s burial wishes. The siblings don’t get along at first, but a transit strike strands them in town and they slowly connect. Lucas becomes interested in Guido (Alejandro Russek), a fitness freak who stirs his attraction, but their meetings crackle with only limited sexual tension. Family Members features some striking cinematography, but it unfolds so slowly that the subtleness of what happens may be of greater importance for the characters. This well-made film is too slight to generate enough emotion to compel viewers.

    Making Montgomery Clift (June 23, 4 pm, Castro) is a tantalizing documentary by Robert Clift (Monty’s youngest nephew) and Hillary Demmon. The film showcases fabulous clips and home movies, as well as audio and video interviews that investigate the actor’s life, sexuality and career. Jack Larson’s story about a kiss is terrific, as is information about Clift’s insistence to work outside of the studio system and play parts that he wanted to (even if it meant turning down juicy roles). This commitment to his craft, including rewriting his lines, is what comes across best, as a key sequence from Judgment at Nuremberg shows. But too much of Making Montgomery Clift gets lost in the weeds as the Clift family tries to correct various biographers’ errors. A bit about the actor’s arrest with a “boy” is carefully parsed, and other revisions, such as Clift’s extended trouble with John Huston, feel belabored. This documentary will certainly be of interest to fans of the actor, but it could have been better.

    Monsters. (June 23, 6:30 pm, Castro) is a fantastic slow-burn drama from Romania. Told in three acts, over the course of 24 hours, the film opens with the moody Dana (Judith State) returning home from a trip, but not wanting to go home. She hires a taxi driver (Alexandru Potocean) for the night and contemplates her next move. The second sequence features her husband, Arthur (Cristian Popa), meeting Alex (Serban Pavlu) for a discrete tryst. The men discuss the difficulties of gay relationships, but their encounter is uncomfortable and unsatisfying. These two episodes are both shot in a 1:1 square frame that emphasizes the claustrophobia each character feels. They also run about 90 minutes into this two-hour film. The last act has Dana and Arthur together, and the screen opens wide to show the couple. As they attend a baptism and visit his shrewish grandmother (Dorina Lazar), Dana and Arthur re-evaluate their relationship. Monsters. is simple, but riveting. The long stretches of silence, along with the body language by the two excellent leads, convey the weight of their emotions. Seeing Dana sitting forlornly in the taxi, or Arthur, with his back to the camera on a bed, after sex, are extremely sad, revealing moments. In his film debut, writer/director Marius Olteanu has made a searing marital drama.

    We Are the Radical Monarchs (June 24, 7 pm, Landmark Shattuck Cinemas) is an absolutely enchanting documentary. Director Linda Goldstein Knowlton profiles the Oakland-based Radical Monarchs, a loud and proud activist group for young girls of color (most are aged 10–13). These adorable tweens learn about social justice issues from the troop’s unapologetically feminist and queer creators, Anayvette Martinez and Marilyn Hollinquest, who create a safe space to talk to 2nd graders about race, gender and LGBT issues. The Radical Monarchs confront negativity (from Fox News and on Facebook) as well as seek funding that they need to continue their mission and grow with additional troops and in additional cities. But the highlight of We Are the Radical Monarchs is seeing the young girls step into power: testifying for a renter protection act, marching for transgender rights, and meeting with various folks in Sacramento to address the issues that are important to them. The messages of why this inclusionary group is crucial for minority pre-teens may be repeated throughout the film, but they are necessary and worth hearing.

     Queer Genius (June 25 at 1 pm, Castro) is director Chet Catherine Pancake’s galvanizing documentary that profiles five queer female artists. The film opens with a segment on the late Barbara Hammer, who talks about her life, her archive, her legacy and her career as visual artist. (Curator Jenni Olson will pay tribute to Hammer prior to the film’s screening.) Rasheedah Phillips and Camae Ayewa (aka Moor Mother), run a Black Quantum Futurism collective in North Philadelphia and pair soundscapes with spoken word to engage with queer voices and science fiction. They also talk about their lives and experiences and theories in compelling interviews. Queer Genius next showcases Jibz Cameron aka Dynasty Handbag, who is seen in her closets, talking about her favorite outfits, as well as performing on stage. Rounding out the documentary is a portrait of lesbian poetess Eileen Myles, who has achieved considerable fame in her career. She is seen reading her work, and discussing her life, her sobriety and her political attitudes. What emerges is an inspiring portrait of provocative and legendary artists-activists.

     The topical documentary For They Know Not What They Do (June 25, 4 pm, Castro) addresses gay and trans children in evangelical Christians families. The stories range from hopeful to tragic, and there are micro and macro discussions of sexuality and gender identity issues. However, it is how these subjects navigate their family life and find their place in the world that inspires—and why viewers should forgive the film for cramming too many topics into 90 minutes.

     Temblores (Tremors) (June 25, 6:30 pm, Castro) is an exquisite—and exquisitely made—drama from Guatemala about Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager), an upper-class, evangelical, married father of two who leaves his family for Francisco (Maurio Armas). The ripples of his coming out create the tremors of the title as Pablo is cut off from his kids and brings shame on his family. How he negotiates his situation is compelling as Pablo learns the harsh lesson that he cannot have it both ways. Tremors is a quietly powerful film buoyed by Olyslager’s remarkable performance.

    Sister Aimee (June 25, 7 pm, Roxie) is, full disclosure, sponsored by the San Francisco Bay Times. Written and directed by the married couple Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann, the film (re)-imagines what happened in 1926 when Sister Aimee Semple McPherson (Anna Margaret Hollyman)—the second most popular religious figure in America (after the Pope)—was looking for her own miracle. Tired of performing healings and attending revivals, she faked her own death and, according to the story presented in the film, headed off to Mexico with Kenny (Michael Mosley), and Rey (Andrea Suarez Paz), a guide. As detectives investigate McPherson’s disappearance, interviewing family members, exes and others, Sister Aimee develops a connection to Rey that is chaste, but deep. The lesbian angle may be downplayed, but Sister Aimee offers other pleasures, such as a catchy and showstopping musical number. Hollyman delivers an impressive performance here, but it is the sultry Suarez Paz who truly captivates as the woman Sister Aimee wants to be—or at least, be with.

    Written and directed by actor-turned-filmmaker Mike Doyle, Sell By (June 26, 9:15 pm, Castro) is a middling romantic comedy about Adam (Scott Evans) who is five years into his relationship with internet influencer Marklin (Augustus Prew). The couple have not tied the knot yet, in part, because Marklin has money, and Adam, who paints work for another artist (Patricia Clarkson, in a cameo), does not. This makes Adam insecure, but there are other issues festering. Meanwhile, their supportive friends are dealing with equally fraught relationships. Cammy (Michelle Buteau) is having a relationship with Henry (Colin Donnell), who has a terrible secret; Haley (Zoe Chao) is tutoring a 17-year-old student (Christopher Gray), who is in love with her; and Elizabeth’s (Kate Walsh) marriage may be on the skids. Sell By wants to address sex and intimacy, jealousy and communication, and the pleasures and pains of being single, but Doyle paints his characters too broadly. Everyone is defined by one issue—which often gets resolved off-screen. This makes the characters difficult to relate to or sympathize with, and therefore frustrating. The actors are all pleasant enough—Buteau gives the film’s standout performance—but they, like the audience deserve more complex characters and material that is not so superficial.

    Searching Eva (June 26, 9:30 pm, Roxie), is a documentary that seems fascinated with its subject, Eva, a bisexual sex worker in Berlin. Audiences, however, may find this portrait more enervating than illuminating. Director Pia Hellenthal poses Eva artfully in various tableaus—taking naked selfies, taking a shower or bath, preparing a needle for drug use, or in bed with various guys (and the occasional girl). But there is something creepy and exploitative about how these scenes are filmed. Dramatically, Searching Eva is only intermittently interesting. When the 25-year-old talks about the trap of trying to be someone or do something, there is perhaps some insight into her existential quarter-life crisis. But why she behaves the way she does remains largely unclear. She is inspiring to some of her followers—one talks about how Eva prompted her to act on a same-sex attraction—but she is also trolled in one frame, where copious messages of concern fill the screen. Is Hellenthal making a cautionary tale? Is she celebrating the freedom of a sex worker who can talk candidly about her life? How viewers respond to Eva will dictate their appreciation of this documentary. It should prompt both walkouts and polarized opinions.

    © 2019 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.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer