From important docs to romantic dramas and everything in between, we look at this year's slate of queer films
INSIDE OUT: TORONTO LGBT FILM FESTIVAL May 25 to June 4, TIFF Bell Lightbox and other venues. $14, some discounts, galas $25. 416-599-8433, insideout.ca.
(Ernesto Contreras, Mexico/Netherlands). 103 minutes. Rating: NN
A good-looking linguist (Fernando Álvarez Rebeil) arrives in a remote jungle town in Veracruz, Mexico, in the hopes of recording an Indigenous language on the verge of extinction. Problem is the last surviving speakers – two crotchety old men – refuse to talk to each other over a 50-year-old grudge.
Director Ernesto Contreas gives his intriguing premise a rote melodramatic treatment that relies heavily on flashbacks, expository dialogue and the least subtle metaphor for Catholic repression ever – a crucifix gushing blood. The made-up language is never subtitled, so when the two men finally meet, the audience is denied a dramatic payoff.
The location and subject matter offer worlds of possibilities, visually and thematically, but the filmmaking plays it as safe as the mawkish script. KR
Sat (May 27), 7:15 pm, TIFF 2
(Max Emerson, U.S.). 90 minutes. Rating: NNN
Instagram star Max Emerson’s debut feature about an unstable street youth-turned-sex-worker named Jack (Conor Donnally) who fatefully meets closeted Connecticut lawyer Ken (Terrance Murphy) is obviously inspired by My Own Private Idaho – Donnally even resembles a buff River Phoenix.
But Emerson is no Gus Van Sant, and the film features uneven acting, strange pacing and a lazily melodramatic plot.
Still, Donnally’s wild-eyed protagonist – charismatic and dangerous – is always intriguing, and Emerson’s larger theme about the plight of LGBTQ street kids, underscored in a PSA scroll at the end, is important. GS
Sat (May 27), 9:45 pm, TIFF 1
(P. David Ebersole, Todd Hughes, U.S./UK). 84 minutes. Rating: NNN
Jayne Mansfield is overdue for a documentary reappraisal. A Hollywood pinup icon famed for her signature squeal and bombshell figure, she craved publicity and died in a sensationalized car crash.
Making their co-directing debut, couple P. David Ebersole (Hit So Hard) and Todd Hughes have assembled a great lineup of talking heads – Mamie Van Doren, Mary Woronov, Kenneth Anger, Dolly Read – who recast Mansfield’s rise as 20th Century Fox’s dumb blond answer to Marilyn Monroe in feminist terms.
“She was in on the joke,” notes John Waters.
The account of her Hollywood years is fun and fascinating – she spoke five languages and played the violin – and essentially positions her as an forerunner to Madonna and Kim Kardashian. But the doc loses momentum as the directors shift attention to Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey.
Mansfield and LaVey’s connection doesn’t seem as unusual now as it may have in less media-literate times. Both were savvy self-promoters, loved dressing up and had signature colours (his house was black, hers pink).
It’s a curious detour, but the film is most compelling when focused on Mansfield. Completely head-scratching are a series of amateurish interpretive dance scenes that add little more than perfunctory stopgaps between colourful footage and interviews. KR
Sun (May 28), 2:30 pm, TIFF 1
(Jennifer M. Kroot, U.S.). 90 minutes. Rating: NNNN
Tales Of The City author Armistead Maupin has lived enough lives for several documentaries, but this one, though strangely structured by To Be Takei director Jennifer M. Kroot, is satisfying enough.
Born in an aristocratic Southern family, Maupin was a Republican as a youth – he even worked for notorious homophobe Jesse Helms and has a picture of himself shaking Nixon’s hand – before moving to San Francisco in the 70s, coming out and writing the serialized adventures of his Barbary Lane denizens for the San Francisco Chronicle, which made him famous.
A born raconteur, Maupin discusses everything from his suffragist grandmother to a tryst with Rock Hudson, touching on the importance of coming out (he’s notorious for “outing” Hudson), writing about AIDS and finding one’s “logical,” as opposed to biological, family.
Among the reverent talking heads are friends Laura Linney and Ian McKellan- (who both starred in the Tales miniseries), authors Amy Tan and Neil Gaiman and performers Jonathan Groff and Margaret Cho.
The story of how he met his husband, photographer Christopher Turner, is as charming as his breakup with his former long-term partner, activist Terry Anderson, was heartbreaking. GS
Sun (May 28), 7 pm, TIFF 1
(Tracy Choi, Macau/Hong Kong/Taiwan). 97 minutes. Rating: NNN
The film opens as Sei (Gigi Leung) is getting tended to in hospital after a falling-down-drunk night. A flashback discloses the source of her anguish and alcoholism: her failed friendship with Ling (Pang Pu Nam).
Ling and Sei worked in a massage parlour together, where Ling showed Sei the ropes. They began to co-parent after Ling became pregnant. There not lovers, but Sei plainly feels something more than platonic friendship.
This one kinda creeps up on you with its realistic portrayal of the massage parlour in Macau and the close bonds among workers – hence the title. And Leung gives a moving performance as a woman trying to find herself – obviously conflicted about her feelings for Ling and for Sei’s very loving husband. SGC
Sun (May 28), 7:15 pm, TIFF 2
Handsome Devil is a sweet, weird little picture.
(John Butler, Ireland). 95 minutes. Rating: NNNN
Writer/director John Butler follows The Stag with a rather different study of male bonding, this time at an Irish boys’ school where bullied teen Ned (Fionn O’Shea) finds himself drawn to his new roommate Conor (Nicholas Galitzine), a rugby player who proves more complicated – and possibly more simpatico – than he first appears.
The set-up is familiar, and even more so once Sherlock’s Andrew Scott turns up as the boys’ inspirational English teacher, but Handsome Devil has more in common with The Squid And The Whale and Sing Street than Maurice or Dead Poets’ Society. Butler’s telling a looser, odder story, and one that isn’t necessarily bent on martyring its characters.
What he ends up with is a sweet, weird little picture – and if it’s impossible to determine exactly when it’s taking place, maybe that’s part of its charm. NW
Mon (May 29), 7:30 pm, TIFF 2
(Neil Triffett, Australia). 94 minutes. Rating: NN
First-time feature director Neil Triffett’s musical about a high school battle of the bands has the earnest and cheery tone of High School Musical, but replaces the jock/nerd dynamic with a nerd/nerd one.
Mopey outcast Ethan (Benson Jack Anthony) arrives at a new school with designs on joining a power-pop band led by the domineering yet adorbs Bradley (Rahart Adams). Things get complicated when he falls for the singer of a rival Christian folk group (Jordan Hare).
Based on Triffett’s short film of the same name, EMO The Musical plays like an extended TV pilot. The young cast is promising, but supporting characters are never fleshed out, the director mines mystifyingly few gags from his broadly drawn subculture parody, and the climactic scene feels slapdash.
The (choreography-free) musical numbers comment on conformity, peer pressure, gay conversion therapy and teenage depression, but lack whimsy, a comic edge or strong point of view to set them apart from the big American productions Triffett is ostensibly attempting to imitate. KR
Tue (May 30), 7 pm, TIFF 1
(Vincent Gagliostro, U.S.). 100 minutes. Rating: NNNN
Veteran character actor Alan Cumming gets frighteningly deep into his role as Sam, a New York artist and former AIDS activist who is stuck in the past and detests the current generation of PrEP-taking, entitled young queers.
Then he meets Braeden (Zachary Booth), a directionless young man who makes him confront his own assumptions.
Director Vincent Gagliostro, clearly drawing on his own history of art-making and activism (he was one of the original members of ACT UP), weaves in rich themes like aging, the politicization of sex and white privilege. It’s too bad the plot line about the eponymous Louie – one of Sam’s friends who died from AIDS – never comes into focus.
But Cumming and Booth have an authentic rapport, and the rich supporting cast includes queer icons Wilson Cruz, Patrick Breen and Justin Bond. Look for a couple of remarkable scenes, including one featuring two gay seniors making out, and another in which Sam literally paints Braeden. GS
Tue (May 30), 9:15 pm, TIFF 1
(Darren Thornton, Ireland). 82 minutes. Rating: NN
Mary (Seána Kirslake), an angry young woman fresh out of jail, must serve as maid of honour at the wedding of her best friend, Charlene (Charleigh Bailey). Chances that she’ll find a date are slim until she develops a connection with wedding videographer Jess (Tara Lee).
But the central relationship in the movie is between besties Charlene and Mary, and you can’t believe it for a second. Charlene treats Mary cruelly, rejecting her sweet maid of honour speech, for example, and there’s never any sense of a spark between the cold pals.
So the premise itself seems ridiculous. Too bad. Kirslake has a charismatic screen presence that makes you keep caring about her even when she does some dumb things. SGC
June 1, 7 pm, TIFF 2
(Helene Hegemann, Germany). 94 minutes. Rating: N
Helene Hegemann became a literary celebrity in Germany when she published the bestseller Axolotl Roadkill at age 17 – and was then accused of plagiarism.
The scandal did not prevent her from making this uneven film adaptation, which stars Jasna Fritzi Bauer as Mifti, a 16-year-old Berliner drifting between lovers, nightclubs and the school headmaster’s office. The book had little in the way of narrative structure, and Hegemann doesn’t bother to give the film a driving plot either. Problem is there isn’t much in the way of mood or style to make up for it.
Bauer has bright eyes, a precocious presence and an effective shit-eating grin, but also a one-note knowingness that undermines any sense of inner life. With the exception of obnoxiously named BFF Ophelia (Mavie Hörbiger), the characters, including the headmaster, impart a similar indifference, so there are no stakes or sense of tension – sexual or otherwise.
Hegemann plays around with natural light, but mostly she films Berlin and its interiors with a bland professionalism that feels removed from the energy, openness and sexual adventurousness the city is known for. KR
June 1, 9:15 pm, TIFF 2
The Ring Thing is a smart pic about relationships.
(William Sullivan, U.S.). 115 minutes. Rating: NNNN
When Sarah (Sarah Wharton) shows her girlfriend, Kristen (Nicole Pursell), her dad’s wedding ring, Kristen gets the wrong message. She thinks Sarah is proposing – the marriage-phobic Sarah definitely is not – setting in motion the story of their conflicting views on their relationship.
What makes this intriguing is Sarah’s decision to direct a documentary about gay marriage and divorce. Footage of real-life queer duos speaking their minds about coupledom interspersed with the fictional narrative starts influencing Sarah’s thinking.
The ending is terrible, but the movie remains a soulful meditation on what brings couples together and tears them apart. Kristen and Sarah’s dilemma is believable, and the doc subjects are smart and soulful. SGC
June 2, 9:45 pm, TIFF 2
(Catherine Gund, Daresha Kyi, U.S.). 90 minutes. Rating: NNNN
Can you believe there’s an iconic lesbian Mexican singer that many of us who should know better have never heard of? Remedy that situation by seeing this exceptional documentary about Chavela Vargas.
Vargas, who died in 2012, performed emotionally charged songs about heartbreak and ecstasy, sparking inevitable comparisons to Edith Piaf. The Mexican star, wearing ponchos and pants, mesmerized her audiences with her distinctly deep guttural tones.
Directors Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi skilfully interweave the singer’s performances with interviews with Vargas’s ex-lovers and friends, savvily leaking information at just the right moments about Vargas’s alcoholism and emotional volatility. They paint a portrait of a uniquely passionate artist, beloved by audiences in both her home country and Spain. SGC
June 3, 2:15 pm, TIFF 2