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    Recommended LGBTQ Films From the 2023 Sundance Film Festival

    By Gary M. Kramer–

    There were some terrific LGBTQ films screening at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Select films are still available for online viewing ( ) through January 30, except where noted. Here are a handful of films to catch or keep an eye out for.

    Fairyland (not available online) is a shaggy, engrossing, and ultimately moving drama—bring tissues—about Alysia (Nessa Dougherty as a 6-year-old), who is taken by her father Steve (Scoot McNairy) to San Francisco in the 1970s after her mother dies. Steve, a poet and writer, is gay and he starts dating various guys while Alysia is left alone to develop her independence. (Some call Steve’s parenting “neglectful” or “irresponsible.”)

    Written and directed by Andrew Durham, and based on Alysia’s memoir about her father, Fairyland focuses on her coming-of-age. As a teen (played by Emilia Jones of CODA) she grapples with her own sense of self while the AIDS crisis starts taking a serious toll on the community. The film shows how Alysia processes her relationship with her father and how he impacted her life; she becomes the keeper of the history and the legacy. Fairyland is a bit clunky at times, though, as Durham uses radio and news reports as well archival footage to set a scene, and it is odd that Steve never kisses any men, despite numerous romantic encounters, including an undefined relationship with Charlie (Adam Lambert). But the emotions conveyed by Jones and McNairy ring true, and a series of tender and powerful scenes in the last half hour tug hard at the heartstrings.

    In Pakistani director/cowriter Saim Sadiq’s extraordinary feature debut, Joyland—it won the Queer Palm and Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes—Haider (Ali Junejo) meets the transgender exotic dancer, Biba (Alina Khan), when he takes a job as one of her backup dancers. He also helps her out with a poster she needs and comes to her rescue when she is shamed on the subway. Haider wants to spend time with Biba because he is attracted to her. A scene of them in her apartment brims with sexual tension and it is dazzlingly shot with lights dancing on their faces. However, Haider is married to Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), and while he does care for his wife, he struggles with his desires. Joyland shows how Haider, Biba, and Mumtaz, as well as several other characters, flout gender roles as they experience both empowerment and setbacks.

    The film also showcases trans life without condescension. Watching the main characters buck social conventions, or knuckle under them, is affecting because they reveal themselves in their most vulnerable moments. Joyland features crisp cinematography and artful framing—the film is gorgeous—but it is the trio of strong performances that are most illuminating and incandescent.

    Trans writer/director Vuk Lungulov-Klotz’s sensitive, moody drama, Mutt depicts an emotional 24 hours in the life of Feña (Lîo Mehiel), a Latinx transman in New York City. (Feña is a gender-neutral name in Chile.) While in a bar with friends, Feña spots his ex, John (Cole Doman). Their meeting is awkward at first, however, as they spend more time together, things get more complicated, not less, as they consider recoupling. Feña’s life is further complicated when his estranged sister, Zoe (MiMi Ryder), wants to spend the day with him; she’s run away from school. Feña is also preparing to pick up his father, Pablo (Alejandro Goic), who is arriving from Chile, for what is sure to be an intense reunion. Much of the drama comes from Feña and John determining the future of their relationship, and the scenes between Mehiel and Doman crackle with energy. Lungulov-Klotz makes an auspicious feature debut with his compelling film.

    Fancy Dance, by director/cowriter Erica Tremblay, is an involving drama about Jax (Lily Gladstone), a lesbian on the Seneca-Cayuga reservation, who is caring for her teenage niece, Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson). Roki’s mother has been missing for a few weeks, and Jax has taken the search into her own hands given the FBI’s unhurried investigation. However, Child Protective Services have come to take Roki away; Jax is deemed an unfit guardian, given her criminal record.

    As Jax gets information on her sister from her girlfriend Saphhire (Crystle Lightning) or Boo (Blayne Allen), whom she runs drugs for, Jax takes Roki on a road trip to follow the clues, getting deeper into trouble. Roki, meanwhile, is determined to attend a powwow where she and her mother perform annually. Fancy Dance can be didactic at times with characters overexplaining things, and the plotting is frequently contrived—Roki effortlessly steals what she needs, and an identity check by an officer fails to build the suspense it should—but Gladstone is marvelous and flinty, and the film ends on a truly graceful note.

    Little Richard: I Am Everything is a glorious documentary about the legendary musician who insists he was the “architect and emancipator” of rock and roll—and he is not wrong. As director Lisa Cortés’ film shows, the pioneering Little Richard’s influence as it traces the performer’s career from his childhood in Macon, GA, to his breakout success with “Tutti Frutti,” to his renouncing his homosexuality to focus on God.

    His extremes are fascinating, and Cortés features scholars, musicians (Mick Jagger among them) and fans, like John Waters, who comment on Little Richard’s life and accomplishments as well as his race and sexuality. But it is Little Richard himself—seen in fantastic archival clips and interview footage—who best advocates for himself. Emphasizing the lack of appreciation he received by the music industry—he was denied money he earned and was never nominated for a competitive Grammy—Richard never lets anyone forget his importance. Cortés’ documentary provides an appropriate, affectionate showcase for Little Richard’s legacy.

    © 2023 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

    Published on January 26, 2023