What to See @ Outfest 2019

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday July 11, 2019

One of the most prestigious of the many LGBTQ film festivals, OutFest, celebrates 37 years and will run July 18-28, 2019. The Los Angeles-based fest boasts films from 33 countries, including 28 world premieres, and more than two thirds of this year's content is directed by women, people of color and trans filmmakers.

"We are extremely proud to present this vibrant, adventurous, and entertaining lineup that reflects the rich diversity of perspective within our global LGBTQ community, and the level of artistry on display from our filmmakers is cause for celebration. However, while we celebrate, we also approach this year's festival cognizant of the fact that our community's rights — from our trans family to LGBTQ refugees, undocumented immigrants and beyond — remain under attack from those in power, and we have absolutely acknowledged our responsibility to share their stories with our audience," commented OutFest Director of Festival Programs Mike Dougherty.

OutFest opens with Rachel Mason's "Circus of Books," closes with Hannah Pearl Utt's "Before You Know It" and showcases four Centerpiece films, "Adam," "Changing the Game," "Straight Up" and "This is Not Berlin."

Anyone who follows Miami OutSHINE and Frameline (San Francisco) will recognize these titles and a bunch more — all worthy selections. But there are also some amazing new films to be enjoyed.

Here are some of my thoughts on a rather hefty sampling:

In "Circus of Books," Rachel Mason uncovers the startling fact that her parents ran a gay porno shop for three decades. As the doc unfolds layers are revealed offering the viewer a free speech odyssey that spans decades.

Easily one of the must-see films, Hari Sama's semi-autobiographical "This is Not Berlin (Esto no es Berlín)" is a mesmerizing cinematic achievement focusing on two teens (Xabiani Ponce de León & José Antonio Toledano) who find themselves swimming in the sexually fluid underground underbelly of the Mexico City arts scene in the '80s. "Berlin" is a visually stunning, sexually explosive, energetic, dense masterwork.

Another highly recommended film, Rodrigo Bellot's "Tu Me Manques," is an ambitious adaptation of his 2015 historic play that pushed LGBTQ acceptance forward in conservative Bolivia. Blending theatrical elements (that actually enhance the film), Bellot examines two very different men trying to come to terms with the death of a loved one cross cut with the journey of the young man who chose to die for fear of hurting his family. Or did he?

James Sweeney wrote, directed and co-stars in "Straight Up," a film that wonders what happens when a queer guy's sexual identity is obvious to everyone but himself? Sweeney has written a witty and charming screenplay and cast his co-star (the amazing Katie Findlay) wisely. I only wish Sweeney had the courage to do something daring with his denouement.

Adam is a 16-year-old straight cis male (appealing Nicholas Alexander) who falls for a slightly older lesbian (equally appealing Bobbi Salvor Menuez) who mistakes him for trans. Adam allows his crush to keep the deception going and things get mighty wonky from there. Directed by Rhys Ernst and adapted by Ariel Schrag's from her controversial YA novel. "Adam" has its share of wince moments but the film's awkwardness is also part of its charm — at least to this cis gay male.

One of the more fab highlights of the Fest is Frank Simon's seminal doc, "The Queen." Bravo to Kino Lorber for giving us a 4K restoration of this lost gem so it can be appreciated by a new generation. The film follows prep for the 1967 Miss All-American Camp Beauty and features the now infamous moment when contestant Crystal LaBeija loses, storms off in a huff and then proceeds to "read" the pageant "queen" for rigging the event. (Crystal would go on to start House of La Beija in 1977 and must have been the model for the character of Elektra on "Pose.") But beyond the bitchiness, the piece is a time capsule capturing of queer folk (gay and trans) in the late '60s, on the cusp of a war for liberation, with the Vietnam War raging in a divided country. How far we've come is how far we still have to go.

Judy Garland has been the subject of numerous bios and docs (and another film coming out in September starring Renee Zellweger) but in Stephen Kijak's engrossing "Sid & Judy," the focus is on her many comeback periods in the '50s and early '60s when she met and married Sid Luft and he managed her record-breaking concert career, produced her Oscar-nominated turn in the 1954 remake of "A Star is Born" and guided her ill-fated TV series run. One of the most startling revelations in the film is that Garland's father was gay. This gem of a doc further solidifies the icon's place as one of the greatest entertainers of all time.

Australian filmmaker Samuel Van Grinsven's "Sequin in a Blue Room" is a beguiling if often-too-slight film about one boy's dark night of the soul. Sequin (Conor Leach, perfectly fucked up) is a 16-year-old obsessed with locating a stranger he had a brief sex encounter with. Grinsven's movie is visually stunning and he captures today's perpetually turned-on teens (gadgets and otherwise) who rarely actually interact with one another beyond anonymous hook-ups.

A rather warped and oddly affecting love story, Kal Kreuser's "Label Me" tells the tale of a Syria refugee-hustler who hooks up with a well-to-do, out Berliner. Without being too obvious, Kreuser explores notions of masculinity and identity as well as the damage inherent cultural hatred can do to potentially queer people.

Writer-director Doug Spearman's ("Hot Guys with Guns") latest work, "From Zero to I Love You," is part melodrama, part rom-com, part '80s soap (Arthur Hiller's "Making Love" comes instantly to mind) where everything is taken soooo seriously. Yet the film is peppered with these powerful, realistic scenes (mostly involving breakups) that makes up for the messiness. The plot focuses on a married man who has a gay affair and, then, makes one bad decision after another.

Jayro Bustamante's Guatemalan effort, "Tremors (Temblores)" has the feel of a crazy satire, at first, until you're jarred into realizing that the narrative is the norm in certain evangelical families in Latin American countries. Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager) leaves his family after he falls in love with a man, and is immediately ostracized, until he agrees to see the error of his ways. "Tremors" is a profoundly disturbing and important feature.

From Italy, Simone Godano's hilarious and poignant "An Almost Ordinary Summer" (Croce e Delizia)," is a tale of two older "straight" men from different classes who fall in love and must deal with their homophobic and class-phobic families. The fantastic cast is led by the molto charismatic Alessandro Gassman and the super sexy Filippo Scicchitano.

You might think you dropped acid watching Lucio Castro's "End of the Century (Fin de siglio)". This gem from Argentina stars Juan Barberini and Ramón Pujol as two hotties who meet in Barcelona, have steamy sex, yak a lot and — the film time shifts to a possible alternate universe. Maybe?

And speaking of mindfucks, Gregor Schmidinger's "Nevrland," from Austria, is a head-trippy film centering on a 17-year-old (the mesmeric Simon Frühwirth) who longs for connection. The startling visuals channel David Lynch and leave the viewer in a surreal state of WTF?

A twisty take on the vampire genre highlights Brad Michael Elmore's "Bit," a film that feels like it would be right at home as a series on the CW. It has a "timesup" theme built in ("Men can't handle power"), an attractive cast, some stylish camerawork, a cool soundtrack and lots of blood. The gay factor isn't super high but the camp factor makes up for that.

Actor turned writer-director Mike Doyle's sweet and smart dramedy, "Sell By," features Scott Evans ("Grace and Frankie") and Augustus Prew as a couple feeling a five-year-itch of sorts. A kick-ass (if sometimes overstuffed) ensemble keeps things interesting and fun.

Tom Shepard's timely doc, "Unsettled," follows four queer refugees as they escape their homophobic countries and attempt to relocate in the U.S. They include those fleeing from Syria, Angola and the Congo. "Unsettled" captures the hope that existed during the Obama years decimated with the election of Trump.

"Scream, Queen: My Nightmare on Elm Street" explores the fascinating life of Mark Patton, star of the sequel to the horror franchise, subtitled, "Freddy's Revenge," a film demonized by fans dripping with gay hate. "Scream, Queen" is a story of survival amidst the deep-seeded homophobia in Hollywood, especially during the first decade of the AIDS crisis. Patton's rise (via a Robert Altman/Cher collaboration), fall and triumphant return to prominence proves to be downright heroic.

Tomer Heymann's sometimes too-revealing portrait, "Jonathan Agassi Saved My Life" focuses on the excesses (drugs and sex) of this self-admitted mama's boy's messy life as a porn star and escort. The end credits reveal he has retired from porn and is in recovery. It's a shame the doc couldn't show us a bit more about that.

Fine! I'll watch "Showgirls" again! "You Don't Nomi" wonders if Paul Verhoeven's drekfest was misunderstood. The 1995 cult classic was initially met with universal derision yet Jeffrey McHale's reexamination wonders if, like "Valley of the Dolls," there isn't more there than horrific histrionics.

Oscar-winners, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman take a look at three different pride events in the doc "State of Pride," which explores differing notions of pride across a geographic, class, race, gender and age spectrum. All are united in a desire to keep fighting for visibility and acceptance.

Finally, one of the best, if not the best film at OutFest this year is Kestrin Pantera's honest and absorbing, "Mother's Little Helpers," about four siblings who gather at the deathbed of their complicated mother. The film deftly mixes comedy and pathos while always remaining true to the characters journeys. Sam Littlefield is a standout (among standouts) as the gay brother with a substance abuse problem. Watching "MLH," you feel like your peeping into a real family's dysfunctional world. The best compliment I can give it.

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He is also a proud Dramatists Guild member and a recipient of a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship. He was awarded a 2015 Fellowship Award from the NJ State Council on the Arts, the 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and the Chesley/Bumbalo Foundation Playwright Award for his play Consent, which was also a 2012 semifinalist for the O'Neill. His play, Vatican Falls, took part in the 2017 Planet Connections Festivity and Frank was nominated for Outstanding Playwriting. Lured was a semifinalist for the 2018 O'Neill and received a 2018 Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Grant. Lured will premiere in 2018 in NYC and 2019 in Rome, Italy. LuredThePlay.com

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