ArtsATL > Film > Critic’s picks: Poignant, glittery and gay, Out on Film festival opens this week

Critic’s picks: Poignant, glittery and gay, Out on Film festival opens this week

Now in its 24th year, the gay-themed media celebration Out on Film turns an eye on Atlanta and the Southeast. As usual, it also includes international work among its three dozen-plus offerings. The films range from flesh-flashing gay-boy comedy “Eating Out: The Open Weekend” to moving AIDS-era history “We Were Here” to World War II lesbian drama “The Night Watch” from Sarah (“Tipping the Velvet”) Waters to documentaries by former Atlantan Christopher Hines (“Legalize Gay,” “Man 2 Man: A Gay Man’s Guide to Finding Love”) to the latest comedy concert from Atlanta’s favorite Korean-American, omnisexual pottymouth Margaret Cho.

For its first two decades, Out on Film was presented by IMAGE Film & Video Center, now ATL Films 365, which is responsible for the yearly Atlanta Film Festival. “Producing even one film festival a year can drive you crazy,” Out on Film director Jim Farmer says. “Producing two can probably kill you.” So, after 2008, the fest was delivered into the hands of the local LGBT community that it’s designed to serve.

“The past three years, we’ve been rebranding and determining how we’re going to proceed,” Farmer says. “I think we’ve done a really good job of incorporating more of the community and making it inclusive.” And, for the most part, it’s all in one location: Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. “I don’t like the idea of having to hop here or hop there,” Farmer says. “We keep it in one place, so if you want to see everything, you literally can.”

There’s plenty of good stuff here — and a whole lot more than the handful of titles I had time to screen before Thursday’s kickoff of the eight-day event. Here are my thoughts on a few of them. For the full schedule, or to get tickets (which can disappear fast), see the link at the bottom.

“The Wise Kids.” A sweet sleeper. This admirably assured coming-of-age drama from Kentucky-born writer-director-actor Stephen Cone handles such questions as coming out, preserving friendships and questioning faith with great subtlety and, well, wisdom.

"The Wise Kids"

Tim (Tyler Ross), Brea (Molly Kunz) and Laura (Allison Torem) are high school seniors in Charleston, S.C., united by the church where Brea’s father is the minister. Their comfort zone is threatened first by their upcoming departures for college, then by Tim’s confession that he thinks he may be gay, though he still considers himself a Christian. Brea takes it in stride, but the hyperreligious Laura gets rattled. Meanwhile, Brea is starting to doubt this whole notion of an omnipotent God. And their church’s happily married music director, Austin (well played by Cone himself), is letting his eyes linger a little too long on his favorite young congregant, Tim.

Unfolding over nine months, “Wise Kids” avoids big dramatic blowouts and easy resolutions. It feels real and lived-in, acted well by a cast of unknowns. Appropriately for the subject matter, the movie is nonjudgmental, forgiving, and fond of its characters’ very human foibles.

“Cho Dependent.” To say that comedian Margaret Cho likes to go blue is like saying the same thing about the sky: it’s what they do. Calling herself “the blackest person” in Peachtree City (where she lives when shooting “Drop Dead Diva”), Cho gives shout-outs to local institutions such as the Clermont Lounge and stripper Blondie and brings on the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus for her finale. (The show was filmed live at downtown Atlanta’s Tabernacle.)

Her humor flirts with showbiz-political insanity, such as her feud with Bristol Palin on “Dancing With the Stars.” But mainly, it’s all about copping some sex and coping with messy bodily functions. A little of Cho can go a long way. But you have to hand it to her. Even when her mix of sexual and flatulence jokes can make you feel a little queasy, she gets her laughs. That’s not an easy thing to do.

“We Were Here.” A moving and important documentary, especially for younger people who don’t know much about the years of endless funerals and paralyzing fear during the 1980s, when AIDS leveled the gay male community.

The film interviews four gay men from San Francisco and one female nurse. They came to the Bay Area for its freedom, only to find themselves plunged into a nightmare landscape peopled by men in their 20s suddenly blistered over their bodies with cancers and turning into dying old men within days. Daniel, a nationally respected artist, tests HIV-positive and endures. But two of his lovers die with astonishing speed and agony.

“We Were Here,” though, doesn’t focus on horror but on the many ways the suffering community came together during its greatest crisis. For the first time, gay men and lesbians — never ones to mingle in the past — joined forces in the face of national indifference. Families were forged to replace the biological ones who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, be there. Bring Kleenex.

Country singer Chely Wright

“Wish Me Away.” Kansas-born country singer Chely Wright seemed to have it all: fantastic good looks, a number-one hit with “Single White Female” in the ’90s, and dreamy country star Brad Paisley for a boyfriend. Then, last year, she came out very publicly on the national talk shows, including Oprah’s. But there was a lot of “Chely who?” going around when she broke the news, and in the year since, traditionally homophobic Nashville, as expected, has closed its doors to a singer already suffering career doldrums.

“Wish Me Away” is a documentary chronicle of Wright’s decision to come out, full of weepy, direct-to-camera video diaries as the big day approaches. (Man, can this woman ever cry!) The movie is well made, but it’s hard not to feel that Wright is struggling to rebrand herself mainly because the two institutions that equally manufactured her — the church and the country music factory — no longer have much use for her. No matter how earnestly she pleads her case, the publicity juggernaut she launched to monetize her announcement (a new album, a memoir … and this movie) suggests that she’s still more a spokesmodel and product than a real, relatable person. Maybe that comes next.

“Out on Film.” Through October 6. Most screenings are at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. For complete information and/or tickets, go to http://outonfilm.org/index.html.

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