NewFest 2017 Feature Length Dramas:
After Louie – God’s Own Country – Against the Law – My Son is Gay – Discreet – The City of the Future – Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Last year I saw only feature length dramas at the NewFest LGBT film festival, 13 specifically, while including in my blog posts two more LGBT themed instant classics (“Moonlight” and “The Handmaiden”) then concurrently playing in regular theaters. 15 movies. Only feature length narrative dramas. That’s usually what I gravitate towards at the festival. So I surprised myself when this year’s personal NewFest itinerary ended up with six short film compilation screenings plus several documentaries and a panel discussion, leaving “merely” five screenings for narrative features. Luckily two films I didn’t find time for in the festival (“God’s Own Country” and “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women”) are now playing in theaters. I quickly caught up with them this past weekend and can add them to this look at lucky seven queerific NewFest screen gems.
So although too many of this year’s NewFest feature length dramas are missing from this round-up, I still provide a diverse and potent selection of the high profile and the unheralded, American and foreign. Taking us from New York to Texas to the UK, India and Brazil. From the 1920s to the 1950s to today. From ecstasy to violence, anger to love, repression to redemption.
The NewFest 2017 New York Centerpiece screening was After Louie, a cinematic gift to all who feel it’s about time Alan Cumming, ubiquitous on stage, TV and film that he is, finally is given the central sole lead role in a movie (if it has happened before, I am unaware of it; surely it should happen more often). And he is very good as Sam, an artist at the crossroads, a veteran of the early AIDS years and ACT UP dealing with survivor’s guilt, whose psychological cages are rattled by a tricky relationship with a younger gay man, Braeden (Zachary Booth from “Keep the Lights On”). Director Vincent Gagliostro (“How to Survive a Plague”) co-wrote the richly layered screenplay with Anthony Johnston (who also plays Braeden’s lover); many themes and contentious issues engaging and dividing older and younger generations of gay men, as well as the yawning absence of a generation of men erased by AIDS, are smartly woven into an entertaining and provocative narrative.
Incisive supporting roles for ally Sarita Choudhury, veteran out actors like Wilson Cruz and Patrick Breen, and a trio of Queer Icons, Everett Quinton, David Drake and Justin Vivian Bond, enrich the ensemble and storytelling. But if nothing else, as Bond quipped during the Q & A, “After Louie” should be famous for giving us the future meme of Alan Cumming telling Justin Vivian Bond to “choke to death on a bag of dicks”. Or was it bag of cocks? Just one more reason (out of many) to see “After Louie” again. This film deserves to make a big cinematic splash when it is released next year.
Already having made a splash at Sundance, where it won the World Cinema Directing Award, and over many weeks in the U.K. box office, God’s Own Country is starting off strongly in limited release stateside. It also just received 11 BIFA – British Independent Film Award – nominations, incl. for picture, director and both lead actors. It might be a bit glib if understandable to refer to this love story between young Yorkshire farmer Johnny (Josh O’Connor) and Rumanian migrant Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) as Northern England’s answer to “Brokeback Mountain”. Except the expected societal obstacles to homosexuality turn out not to be the problem and instead Johnny’s own emotional barriers and arrested maturity are the main antagonists to love. Writer/director Francis Lee was able to shoot the film’s stark yet meticulous scenes in chronological order, adding greatly to a sense of realism and subtle dramatic shifts. The lead actors each both lived and worked on farms for a month before filming commenced, leading to a movie that captures farm life and animal husbandry with startling grittiness and brutal beauty, an aesthetic that also informs the depiction of the two men’s sexual and emotional relationship. Both leads play their roles excellently. (Is it shallow of me to add that Alec Secareanu is absolutely dreamy?)
On a side note, as much as “God’s Own Country” really is its own starkly beautiful movie, I can’t help but detect one or two small, perhaps unwitting, loving nods to “Brokeback Mountain”, including a scene where Johnny assiduously avoids glancing over at Gheorghe when he washes himself naked, framed almost exactly like a similar scene between Gyllenhaal and Ledger; plus there’s the mournful fetishizing of a missed partner’s article of clothing, though here it is a sweater instead of a shirt. (Don’t let that last sentence steer you wrong though; “God’s Own Country”, unlike “Brokeback Mountain”, is not a tragedy.) And on a really silly side note: Professor Quirrell and Madam Pomfrey from Hogwarts happen to play Johnny’s father and grandmother respectively. (And that’s what makes me a blogger, an enthusiast, and not a critic. Really don’t want to be mistaken for a critic…)
Based on box office receipts in the USA sadly only a mere 1/3 of 1% of the the audience that flocked to the wonderful “Wonder Woman” have turned up to check out the marvelous Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, the true story of a man, his wife, the lie detector machine they invented, the female student they bedded, bonded and everything but officially wedded, and how all this ecstatic entanglement inspired that most famous female cartoon superhero: Wonder Woman. I have a sneaking suspicion this film will find many eventual devotees on dvd, as the whole history is just too incredibly delicious, the performers too appealing, and the movie itself just too damn good. It is too easy to highlight apparently sensational details: Bisexuality! Threesomes! Polyamory! Bondage and Dominance! Sexual Role Play! Comic Book Superheroes! Feminism! Non-traditional Family Structures! Love! Devotion! (O.K. maybe the last four are less sensationalistic but they’re important too.) But more pertinent to point out is how without slick sensationalism but rather with what intelligent sensuality, compassion, and feeling director/writer Angela Robinson dramatizes her themes and the lives of William and Elizabeth Marston and Olivia Byrne. And as played by Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote… well, boy, to paraphrase Professor Marston’s own theories on emotions, they dominate the screen, induce great enjoyment in the viewer, inviting submission to all three and total compliance with the movie’s enthralling points of view.
Speaking of threesomes, an unconventional relationship arrangement for three informs Brazil’s The City of the Future, which won the NewFest 2017 Jury Award for Best International Narrative. It is set in the state of Bahia in a city created during the time of the Brazilian dictatorship when river folk were involuntarily relocated under false promises after a dam project flooded their villages. Co-directors Cláudio Marques and Marília Hughes Guerreiro first introduce us to young teachers Gilmar and Mila together on a motorbike, then show Mila kissing a girlfriend by a beach, then Gilmar and young adult Igor making love in a cave; and eventually we learn Mila is pregnant with Gilmar’s child. But both Mila and Gilmar want Igor to live with them as Gilmar’s lover. The ups and downs of these relationships are told in crisp, quiet scenes of accumulating power within the larger socio-economic conditions, prejudices and history of this remote part of Brazil.
India’s My Son is Gay has the distinction of being the first gay themed movie in the Tamil language. And as such, this tale of a young man’s coming out often takes on the well-meaning, informative but dramatically awkward guise of an Aufklärungsfilm, like an old-timey after-school special. The performers are uniformly appealing, but the filmmaking more than once had me making allowances – this is the first film of its kind in its country; it means really well; the message is more important here than the art… But then the focus of the movie shifts from the young man’s struggles to his ostensibly enlightened mother’s total rejection of him. And what follows are scenes of such powerful, heartrending confrontational acting and a conclusion that dares to be shatteringly inconclusive as well as beautifully filmed, that I was quite stunned. You’d think this film was made for Indian LGBT youths, and it does start out that way, but ultimately it is a film for their parents, and its message to those who would not learn to accept their children is devastating and potent. The young man is heartbroken but finds love and support and a future. The mother’s stubborn hardheartedness leaves her bereft and isolated and broken. “My Song is Gay” is an agitprop melodrama that understands its audience and hits it hard and effectively.
The terms agitprop melodrama might be applicable to Fergus O’Brien’s Against the Law, a drama produced for BBC television which deftly combines documentary interviews with narrative drama, focusing on a dark time in 1950s Britain when homosexuality was criminalized and gay men were ruthlessly persecuted by the government, specifically in the infamous Wildeblood 1954 trial which forms the crux of the movie. The oppressive injustice that befalls Peter Wildblood (Daniel Mays), his lover (Richard Gadd), and his friends is so palpably rendered it made me near sick to my stomach in the theater. Using interviews with gay men who lived through the era and its injustices, as well as potent narrative devices to illustrate how external homophobia is also internalized and in turn directed towards ones own community, O’Brien treats all characters in all their facets and flaws with deep compassion and humanity.
The director of Discreet, Travis Mathews, who previously produced the sexually explicit “I Want Your Love” and “Interior, Leather Bar”, warned the NewFest audience that “Discreet” would not include “pretty young men”. After the screening he expressed surprise that pretty much everyone attending had stayed until the end. He was not being facetious. Although “Discreet” does include plenty of NewFest audience attracting gay sexuality (if not as explicitly as Mathews’ previous efforts), this is not designed to titillate but instead just one facet of the film’s deep and fractured exploration of the unsettled unsettling psyche of a traumatized survivor of childhood abuse, filmed in a formally experimental style that disturbs, confuses and fills the audience with unceasing dread. The rural Texas set film begins so fractured, with unnerving images and sounds and editing wholly outside the realm of mainstream cinema, one can’t at first be sure what one is experiencing. But eventually the pieces start coming together, coalescing into a disturbing drama that swings between intimations of possible redemption or cathartic revenge for the troubled lead character Alex (a very good Johnny Mars), yet ultimately suggests a more inevitably horrific conclusion. Dark, uncompromising stuff. But not necessarily by what it actually shows but mostly in what it suggests and how it suggests this. Before being available for streaming, “Discreet” will receive a small theatrical release next year, a fact Mathews said surprised him too. “Discreet” is easily the least commercial, least audience -“friendly” of the seven NewFest narrative features I saw, but there is no denying its insinuating unsettling power.