Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

LGBTQ in the Sundance landscape


Dylan Gelula in First Girl I Loved, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Photo: Courtesy Sundance
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This year's 32nd annual Sundance Film Festival will screen over 1,100 films chosen from over 12,000 submissions. Here's a preview of 22 features that made the cut, including a bumper crop (12) of LGBTQ dramas and comedies.

First Girl I Loved (US) One of the best things about the new genre of queer-in-high-school films is that it allows us to relive past humiliations in a robust and sometimes darkly funny context simply not possible when we were still trying on our baby-queer trainer wheels. Director/writer Kerem Sanga plants her 17-year-old lovestruck heroine, Anne, smack-dab in the middle of a LA public high school where it's dangerous to merely step outside your particular clique, let alone be robustly gay. Anne's stab at romance is complicated by her buddy Clifton, who has his own agenda. Cast: Dylan Gelula, Brianna Hildebrand, Mateo Arias, Jennifer Prediger.

Kiki (US/Sweden) Sara Jordeno's doc reminds us of the days when her Scandinavian region was on the cutting edge of social change. Kiki tells the story of a new type of "safe space" for queer kids of color in New York City, a robust minority now seeking their place in the sometimes-bland social landscape of modern-day life, in this case through the art of voguing.

Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is the subject of Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, screening at the Sundance Film Festival. Photo: Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures (US) It may be hard to believe that a quarter-century has passed since the death of East Coast homoerotic photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-89). It's fitting that one of our tribe's most celebrated and condemned photographic artists is now the subject of an intense retrospective portrait by our most celebrated documentary team, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. Illustrated by this most Catholic artist's most formally-constructed outrageous images, from the black male model with an uncircumcised penis in "Man in Polyester Suit" to the man in black leather urinating into the mouth of a male friend ("Jim and Tom. Sausalito"), Mapplethorpe's singular body of work seemed at the peak of his fame to preempt the queer field for all time. Mapplethorpe inspired the wrath of social conservatives, leading to the cancellation of an important gallery exhibit and the possible end of Federal government grants to queer and other outsider art. The film contains newly unearthed interviews with Mapplethorpe as well as with friends and family members.

Other People (US) This domestic drama from Chris Kelly centers on the attempts of a young gay comedy writer to survive a broken relationship by moving back to his boyhood Sacramento home. There awaits not only a sick mother but a disapproving dad and younger sisters. David's struggle to convince himself and his family that one can indeed go home again without being thought a failure brings up the question of what is meant by the expression, "I'm doing okay." Cast: Jesse Plemons, Molly Shannon, Bradley Whitford, June Squibb.

Partners (US) Director Joey Ally and screenwriters Jen Tullock and Hannah Utt provide us with this intriguing theme for a lesbian-couple domestic comedy: "a sex life slump." That's indeed the fate of partners Kate and Leigh, who wake up one day to find that their domestic and work lives have become perhaps a bit too entangled, sharing as they do a flat and a tavern.

Peace in the Valley (US) Director-screenwriting partners Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher present the story of the largest American outdoor Passion Play against the backdrop of a referendum on LGBTQ rights by the citizens of Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

Peacock (Czech Republic) Director Ondrej Hudecek and co-writer Jan Smutny provide an odd queer romance set in 19th-century Bohemia involving the life of a premier Czech writer. The story is described as involving "suspense, laughter, violence, hope, nudity, sex, and mostly a happy ending."

Spa Night (US) Director-screenwriter Andrew Ahn brings us inside LA's burgeoning Korean community, whose male hero tries to balance a healthy sexual appetite with his ties to a still-struggling immigrant family. Set in the seldom-seen world of LA gay male spas, the cast features Joe Seo, Haerry Kim, Youn Ho Cho, and Linda Han.

Suited (US) Director Jason Benjamin spotlights Brooklyn tailors Bindle & Keep, who have pioneered the field of custom-made duds for gender-nonconforming clients.

The Saint of Dry Creek (US) Filmmaker Julie Zammarchi tells the story of 50s teen Patrick Haggerty, who comes out to his dad in this rural Washington State community.

Uncle Howard (US/UK) The once-promising cinema career of Howard Brookner is detailed by his nephew Aaron. Brookner directed a pioneering biography of iconoclastic queer writer William Burroughs, which also depicted the cultural upheaval in lower Manhattan in the early 80s. More than a generation after Brookner's career was truncated by AIDS, his nephew explores Uncle Howard's seldom-viewed body of films, producing a moving evocation of his childhood idol and queer-cinema pioneer.

Viva (Ireland) Irish director Paddy Breathnach and screenwriter Mark O'Halloran set their fiction piece in today's Cuba, where a father and son battle over life's disappointments and the heavy burden of past sins. Cast: Hector Medina, Jorge Perugorr'a, Luis Alberto Garc'a.

Here are another 10 new films to watch out for, several receiving their World or North American premieres in the many makeshift cinemas spread across Park City, Utah.

Swiss Army Man stars the brilliant acting team of Paul Dano (Twelve Years a Slave) and Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter films). Dano is Hank, a young man stranded on a deserted island. His salvation arrives when a body washes upon the shore (Radcliffe) that provides Hank with the chance to save himself. Music-video gurus The Daniels, a.k.a. Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, have reportedly produced a witty script for a locally shot feature overflowing with comedy, drama and philosophical asides.

Certain Women Fans of director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy) await her latest collaboration with TV/film star Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain ). Set in a tiny Montana village, the story involves Williams' character's unraveling marriage and a hostage situation involving indie veteran Laura Dern (Blue Velvet) and an adult-education teacher (Kristen Stewart).

Equity Meera Menon (Farah Goes Bang) returns to Sundance with a Wall Street drama featuring Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad) as a senior investment banker trying to launch a tech-company IPO who discovers just how greatly the chips are stacked against her.

White Girl Promising young director Elizabeth Wood wrote and directed this tale of a young student whose misadventures are kickstarted by a disastrous decision to sleep with her drug dealer.

Newtown The most prominent of Sundance's focus on gun violence docs & drama. For three years, Kim Snyder delved into the collective grief that nearly paralyzed this small town in Connecticut in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre. The film features the first public reflections by parents of the 20 student victims, who perished along with six of their teachers.

The other gun-violence-themed films at this year's Sundance are Dark Night (Aurora, Col. movie shooting); As You Are (teens' access to guns); Speaking is Difficult (Arizona former Rep./shooting victim Gabrielle Giffords); and Under the Gun, a dark drama featuring a teen shooter.

Christine Antonio Campos, director of the provocative private-school drama Afterschool, returns with a dramatization of the 1974 on-air suicide of TV newscaster Christine Chubbuck.

Joshy Jeff Baena's drama about a group of bachelors reeling from the news that their buddy has broken off his engagement features a cast of comedy-based actors: Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley), Adam Pally (Happy Endings ), Nick Kroll (Kroll Show ).

Manchester by the Sea Casey Affleck is a Boston guy struggling to grow up who is shocked into maturity when his older brother (Kyle Chandler) dies and makes him the guardian of his teenage son. Written/directed by theater veteran Kenneth Lonergan (This Is Our Youth).

Agnus Dei French director Anne Fontaine's (Coco Before Chanel) tale follows Red Cross doctor Mathilde, who rescues a group of pregnant nuns hiding their condition in a remote convent in WWII-era Poland. Lou de Laage as Mathilde is getting buzz as a break-out Sundance performance.

Southside with You Richard Tanne's debut tells the story of how our First Couple first met. It's 1989 as community organizer Barack Obama persuades attorney Michelle Robinson to go on a first date.


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