Over its 27 years, Out on Film — kicking off its eight-day 2014 run of screenings, filmmaker Q&As and other events on October 2 — has grown bigger and more diverse, just like the works it showcases. Fifteen or 20 years ago, gay-themed movies were a little like unicorns — they seemed so rare, almost magical. They also stuck to pretty narrow plotlines and demographics: white guys finding love and fighting plague (Parting Glances, say, or Longtime Companion) or white girls getting steamy (Desert Hearts).
Things have changed a lot since Out on Film was first founded in 1987, in ways reflected by the change of the identities “gay” or “lesbian” to the more encompassing “LGBT” (and sometimes “Q”).
“The LGBT community here is very varied and very spread out,” says Out on Film director Jim Farmer (a contributing writer for ArtsATL). “We literally like to program as much as we can to include every community we can think of — as well as its allies.”
Six years ago, when Farmer first came aboard, the event was, he estimates, 99 percent gay, both onscreen and in the audience. “It’s still overwhelmingly gay,” he says, but its reach extends to an increasing number of non-LGBT supporters who come to the festival because they’re interested in new movies (their sexual focus beside the point) and in having interesting conversations with working filmmakers.
“I’m very happy that we have Blackbird,” Farmer says of Thursday’s opening-night film, starring Julian Walker as a young church-going African American student dealing with his sexuality. Oscar winner Mo’Nique and Isaiah Washington play his parents, who handle their son’s struggle very differently. Director Patrik-Ian Polk (Noah’s Arc) will be on hand for the screening. He won’t be the only filmmaker around, by a long shot.
Out on Film received a grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last year especially to bolster the presence and participation of filmmakers during the 2014 festival. “We have a lot of guests coming,” Farmer says. “We’ve put a real emphasis on having filmmakers here for Q&As, and we have at least one filmmaker here every day.” Film-loving veterans of festivals — this one or others — know that kind of access is one of the best reasons to show up for events like this.
As usual, the festival includes a range from fiction features to short work, and compelling documentaries with subjects from the murdered Matthew Shepard and Representative Barney Frank to two Swiss men whose love carried them through six decades to that once unimaginable event: their marriage.
Most screenings and events, unless otherwise noted, happen at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
Here are some thoughts on a few of the offerings I had a chance to sample in advance, listed alphabetically; keep in mind, I liked some of these films more than others.
Appropriate Behavior. Don’t be surprised if you see Desiree Akhavan’s name popping up frequently in the near months. (Among other things, she’s joining the cast of that litmus-test series, Girls.) The writer-director-star’s comedy concerns a bisexual Persian American named Shirin (Akhavan), trying to recover from the breakup with her girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson) while staying in the closet around her conservative parents. The movie shifts between extended flashbacks to days with Maxine, and Shirin’s attempts to move on in the present. Episodic and amiable, with a barbed sense of humor, the movie features casually off-kilter supporting characters (a boss who’s always stoned, a couple of pretentious Brooklyn roommates) who don’t lapse into caricatures. A little like the heroine’s sexuality, the movie is all-embracing in its approach to the people in her slice of New York. And as rudely funny as it sometimes is, Behavior nicely lets melancholy seep in around the edges as Shirin tries, and happily fails, to get her life figured out.
Blackbird. As a young black Mississippi college student, Randy (Julian Walker) has enough on his plate without having to fight the suspicion (and wet dreams that accompany it) that he’s gay. Randy’s classmates and longtime friends see the issue as no big deal; I kept wishing he would follow their lead sooner. Instead, he starts to flirt with another young man, who wants to be an actor, while still insisting he’s straight. Meanwhile, Randy’s mom (Mo’Nique) is mourning for a daughter who went missing long ago, and is a bit of a Jesus fanatic. The movie is sweet, just a little too obvious and Afterschool Special-y. (And sheez, some of these actors try out some really bad “Southern” accents.)
The Circle. A charming hybrid of a movie. Zurich schoolteacher Ernst Ostertag joined the underground gay membership The Circle (complete with a literary magazine) and through its social events met drag chanteuse Robi Rapp in 1958. One man conservative by nature and professional responsibility, the other man fabulous and flamboyant, they became an unlikely couple — and one that lasted until now, despite gay witchhunts in the 1960s. Stefan Haupt’s film is a winning blend of dramatized feature (with two actors playing the men in their youth) and documentary, with the old Rapp and Ostertag turning up throughout in documentary footage, commenting on the real-life drama we’re watching.
Eat with Me. Los Angeles Chinese American mom Emma (Sharon Omi) moves in with her son Elliot (Teddy Chen Culver) following a rift with her husband. Problem is, her son is gay, and closeted. And mom is a bit of a control freak, which extends to the food Elliot cooks at his foundering restaurant. To be honest, this is the sort of mild-mannered, well-meaning but not fully realized film that could have been making the festival rounds two decades ago. (Think a diluted combination of Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman and Pushing Hands.) It’s not a bad movie, just tepid and secondhand. Take, for instance, MAD TV’s Nicole Sullivan as the generic Wacky Neighbor who gets Emma stoned. Please. And George Takei’s cameo toward the end as, ahem, George Takei, feels like a Hail Mary pass.
Lilting. Like Eat with Me, this marks another notable Asian presence in Out on Film (along with the screening of Alec Mapa’s one-man show Baby Daddy, which the comedian will attend). The fine British actor Ben Whishaw goes a little smaller than his talent deserves, playing Richard, the tremulous lover of a Chinese British man named Kai (Andrew Leung, seen in flashbacks) who died in a sudden accident. Kai’s mother, Junn (Pei-pei Cheng), didn’t know the men were a couple, and now Richard is trying to keep an eye on her, at her elder facility, without spilling the beans. Problem is, Junn doesn’t speak English. The setup is a brilliant, literal metaphor for the troubles gay people often experience trying to deal with their loved ones’ families — Richard literally has to find a shared language with Junn. But the movie becomes a little limp and damp and vague, despite strong acting.