Tag Archives: queer cinema

The Garden Left Behind

The Garden Left Behind is about a woman and her grandmother, both undocumented immigrants, living together in New York City. Abuela Eliana (Miriam Cruz) dreams of returning to her beloved Mexico while Tina (Carlie Guevara) dreams of the day she can complete her transition. Without papers, money is scarce and medical insurance unheard of, so it’s been a long path for Tina. But she has a second family in the trans community, and a strong circle of fiercely protective women surrounding her, so you want to believe she’ll be all right.

Director Flavio Alves situates Tina in a city filled with love and support, but also hatred and violence. Even the slightest decisions she makes may threaten her personal safety, not to mention her mental health. Meanwhile, her gender identity must be performed for an elderly doctor (Ed Asner) who ultimately gets to decide whether or not she’ll get to be a candidate for transition. Not that his pronouncement either way would save her from judgment or brutality if it came to that. Which is why Tina takes to the streets in protest for a friend beaten by police. Her status makes activism risky, but her very existence is a risk in a world where cruelty is an answer to otherness.

As much as I admired the greater context offered by Alves, it was the grandmother-granddaughter relationship at the heart of the story I responded to most. Abuelita does not understand, but she learns she doesn’t need to. She learns that her love is enough. It’s also relatively rare in this kind of story, so it’s as remarkable and inspirational as it is welcome.

The cast, made up of actual trans people, is refreshingly authentic, and I believe this casting is what really sells the story. What also really works is that Tina is at peace with herself. The world may have problems with her, but the conflict is never internalized. She knows who she is, and while perhaps feeling resentful at having to demonstrate it, she never wavers. But the outside world brings more than enough conflict to make up the difference.

Carlie Guevara, like Tina, is a young trans woman of colour. She is a target for hate but also a symbol of hope; she, and others like her, persist. Guevara is luminous and magnetic. But what makes this movie feel really truthful on top of watchable is that it’s not just hardship and struggle. It rises above the bleakness to deliver pure authenticity.

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Knives And Skin

Carolyn Harper makes out with a football player but when she pushes away his roaming hands, he leaves her alone in the woods and she’s never seen alive again. Her disappearance disrupts her high school and the entire community, as the disappearances of beautiful young white women often do.

In the aftermath of her disappearance, we watch things unravel for her friends, her fellow bandmates and classmates, her mother, and the well-intentioned but inexperienced local sheriff. More than that, though, we experience the way that grief accelerates the coming of age for a group of teenagers, which makes it rather obvious that their parents’ haven’t exactly completed the growing up process either.

Writer-director Jennifer Reeder creates a very atmospheric teen noir that pulls from a lot of sources but manages to be its very own thing. The closest thing I can compare it to is Twin Peaks for its eerie tone but believe me when I say Knives And Skin is its own gothic soup – a horror broth steeped with many surprising flavours. Reeder brings in familiar tropes and mixes them with haunting song and feminist references and the result is hard to categorize but fascinating to watch, even if it is uneven, a little long, and prone to meandering. If it occasionally feels a little piecey, it also feels dreamy, surreal. The story is less concerned about finding Carolyn than it is about exploring the various ways people feel trapped, and subtle reminders that escape is possible. Although it starts off with a dead girl in the woods, it subverts the expectations of that genre over and over with its confident female leads and the weaponization of sex. It’s like a parody, but self-aware and dead serious.

Reeder may value style over narrative, but Knives And Skin interesting, beautiful, and unforgettable.

 

 

Rocketman

Elton John has had a life full enough to fill many biopics, but Rocketman shines its spotlight on his most troubled years, as he shot to success and earned the world’s respect and adoration but struggled to know and love himself.

Little Reggie Dwight was a brilliant but shy piano player. His parents were by times abusive and neglectful in their own unique ways, and he retreated into the safe space created by music. As a young man, the self-styled Elton (Taron Egerton) could compose music easily but the lyrics came hard. So his meeting Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) was a special gift from the universe – together, they wrote pop songs that would change and infect the world with catchy, raucous tunes.

Elton developed an on-stage persona that was larger than life: in costume he could be brave, and better still, he could be merry. He could play for thousands despite being torn up inside by grief and self-doubt. He was tormented by the possibility that he would never truly be loved – this, even as he continued to seek the approval from parents who could never give it to him, and affection from a man who would use and abuse him.

Rocketman chronicles both the highs and lows of Elton’s life, whether plumbing the depths of his despair in group therapy or lifting an entire audience off its feet – this latter shown quite literally through the magic of cinema. These fantastical elements really elevate the material beyond the standard biopic and help establish a sense of the unreal. In other parts, the film’s a little draggy, and though his unhappiness is obviously a recurrent theme in his life, I wish it was a little less returned to in the film.

The monstrously successful, deeply conflicted, young, gay addict Elton is brought to life on the big screen by Taron Egerton, doing all his own singing, dancing, wallowing, and dazzling. He may not be his physical twin, but he embodies his spirit and he nails his tight-lipped grin. He manages both the bravura and the pathos, and nails them both.

Director Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman is a bedazzled piece of inventiveness and daring. The movie truly thrills when he embraces his creative vision, translating the highest of emotions into visual delights that pair amazingly well with songs we still want to sing along to. While it’s by no means an exhaustive list of his hits, the movie folds them into itself with purpose and delight. It’s easy to get swept along by this engaging, vulnerable, triumphant story.

Valentine Road

Larry King (not that Larry King) had a pretty rough life. His adoptive parents had 22 complaints about abuse against them. Larry wore jackets at school to hide the bruises. But no one came to save him. When he was finally removed from the home, it was because he had “stolen” food from his adoptive parents’ refrigerator. How hungry was Larry? How sore? He went to a shelter for abused and neglected children where he struggled to identify his orientation. Small for his age, biracial, he experimented with makeup, crocheted scarves, and wore heeled boots to school. Everyone knew him as the gay kid, though he was possibly more accurately transgender, and it didn’t sit well with everyone.

On February 12, 2008, Larry King was shot and killed by a fellow 8th grade classmate – the classmate he’d chosen as his Valentine. A classmate who was so provoked by Larry’s sexuality that he brought a gun to school and shot him in the head, a hate crime that “shocked the nation” (except not really, as Americans have decided that adopting school shootings into their culture is just easier).

The documentary interviews not just students who discriminated against Larry, but teachers as well – one who is religious piece of shit and believes that Larry’s “actions” had “consequences” and a special ed teacher obsessed with weapons. The one teacher who supported him was summarily fired, and now works as a barista. The school has done nothing for grieving students and is tried its best to bury the execution that took place on school grounds.

Yeah, this shit is really difficult to watch. There are too many failures, too many shitty grownups doing nothing. Not just excusing homophobia, but espousing it. It made me sick. But this documentary does something unexpected. It has two victims, not one.

The boy who shot Larry was a white supremacist. But he was also occasionally homeless, with an abusive father and a drug-addicted mother. At the time of the shooting, he was living with his grandfather, who had a lot of weapons lying around. Is he just as much a victim as Larry?

The documentary looks behind the headlines but how much compassion can we really afford to expend here? This shit is unbelievable, and I think we all need to confront what goes on in it, because this film from 2013 was a better predictor of the 2016 election than any of the polls.

This movie made me mad, as it should. It upset me, as it should. It shocked me, as it should. But stories like these continue to fail to galvanize the dirty half of America who breed hatred and value guns over human life.

A Kid Like Jake

What kind of kid is Jake? Like most kids, Jake is many things, and to his parents, he is everything. But when they say “a kid like Jake,” they mean how Jake is different. How Jake likes to dress up in little girls’ dresses. How Jake’s gender identity is maybe fluid. No one says those exact words, of course, because Jake is still young. Jake is so young that his parents, Alex (Claire Danes) and Greg (Jim Parsons), are in the midst of registering him for school. Not public school, hopefully, which has been deemed unacceptable. So they’re making the rounds, doing interviews and writing application essays – thousands of kids for just a few hundred slots, and Alex and Greg need Jake to get financial aid on top of it.

But how old is old enough to even know something like that? I have one nephew who, as MV5BZjFkZjI4ZGQtODRmNi00MWNmLTllYzAtM2Q2MGYwNzhkYjY0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTExNDQ2MTI@._V1_a baby, was always attracted to my baubles. He’d pull on them and gum them as a tot but when he was old enough, he’d steal them and be a very well-accessorized toddler. Another nephew insisted on having his finger nails painted whenever his mother did hers. One little guy had a dolly that he loved to play with. Once, when we brought him to Build-A-Bear, he insisted on our purchasing him a pink stroller for his bear. We obliged of course, and presto, change-o: instant mall hazard, a 3 year old on a complete tear, careening his plastic stroller possibly right into your shins. Does any of this mean anything? Other than that kids aren’t born knowing about gender stereotypes. Most kids will do whatever’s fun, grab whatever’s sparkly, unless of course they’re shamed.

Jake seems to gravitate more toward things traditionally thought of as ‘girly.’ His parents don’t think too much about it, until it’s time to submit applications and they need a hook that will distinguish him from the thousands of other kids. A friend and early childhood educator (Octavia Spencer) suggests that Jake’s gender questioning play might be worth a mention. But when tensions are high, it turns out Jake’s parents are a little less tolerant than previously believed. Not that they’re anything but accepting of their child – it’s toward each other that they harbour resentments, and those babies are coming out!

Truth be told, the subject is treated with kid gloves. It’s sensitive, and they’re so worried about blundering into it head-on, they perhaps fail to graze it fully from the side. No matter. It’s still ripe with interesting questions that are worth considering.

 

The Joneses

Jerry Jones left his wife and 4 sons to begin his transition to Jheri – this being in the 80s long, long before the average Joe knew very much about transgendered people and what it all meant. Forget average Joes, Jehri couldn’t find a doctor in all of Mississippi who was willing to talk about her particular concerns. Jheri was in her late 30s when she left to build her new life, and though surgery was always a goal, her financial obligations were first and foremost to her kids so it wasn’t until age 60 that she was able to scrape together enough to go to Brussels and finally have the surgery she dreamed of.

Now 74, Jheri lives in a trailer park with two of her grown sons, Brad and Trevor, after MV5BMTUzNDk1OTQ0NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODUyMDE2MDI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1333,1000_AL_years of estrangement (her ex-wife didn’t feel Jheri should have any contact with the kids). Jheri helps another son, Wade, run his business, and is grandmother to his two kids, who don’t know Jheri is transgender. After hiding her true identity for so long, this lying in reverse doesn’t sit well with Jheri either, though she wants to spare her grandkids any pain or bullying.

With grown children dependent on her, some of  them disabled, Jheri struggles more than most 74 year olds, but not only does she still pray before every meal (like a good old gal in the Bible Belt), she also sings and dances and struts her stuff in her kitchen when a good song comes on. Her joie de vivre is infectious, admirable. Suppressing her true self for so many years means Jheri loves her hair and makeup and high heels, and she’s living her best life now.

Life is complicated. Families are complicated. Jheri is a remarkable woman, a remarkable matriarch, and so is the documentary that tells her story. It’s not always nice or neat, and I admire the candor, and the courage it takes to be so revealing. Director Moby Longinotto pulls together something truly unique – above all, sending the message that it’s okay to still be figuring things out, it’s okay to not have all the answers. Love solves a lot, and I truly believe that sharing like this will go a long way in destigmatizing which is still a difficult concept for some – but on screen, Jheri is a woman, mother, and grandmother like any other, filled with hopes, dreams, and perhaps some regrets. She is inspiring and real and relatable. These are some Joneses worth keeping up with

Pariah

Pariah: 1. A person without status 2. A rejected member of society 3. An outcast

Alike is a Brooklyn teenager coming to terms with her identity. Or rather, she knows herself to be gay, but feels how deeply unacceptable that is to the world around her. Her mother is desperate to shape her in her own image: she buys her clothes that are worlds away from what she’d choose for herself, she chooses friends she deems appropriate and bans the ones that aren’t. Her father calls her a daddy’s girl, and she is, she’s much closer to him, but she still can’t share the side of herself she’s afraid he’ll reject.MV5BMTg1ODg0NTA1NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjY1ODg4Ng@@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_Pariah is one of those unassuming movies that punch you in the gut. It’s written and directed by Dee Rees (Mudbound) and it’s got such a specific and unique angle that it’s unlike anything else in the genre. Alike exists on the periphery of her community; Rees situates her in a familiar black, urban neighbourhood, one that’s rarely if ever been seen in a queer movie. Rees grounds her character in authenticity; Alike is shy and often quiet, but she’s always thinking. She’s an exceptional student and a brilliant poet but she doesn’t need words to communicate her frustration and sorrow. Adepero Oduye may be a fresh face, but she was absolutely the right choice for the role. She is present, commanding, assured.

Rees has an eye for shooting city streets. Their grit seems to reflect the heaviness of Alike’s heart and the conflict she feels between who she is and who she’s expected to be. Rees doesn’t flinch away from the difficulties in coming out. She has us encounter conflict head-on. But even as things get worse at home, Alike finds the strength and courage to be the hero we all need, but most of all a hero to herself, claiming her identity no matter the consequences, honest about who she is and what she’s worth. It’s a tremendous movie, really, one that rises to its heroine’s occasion – when Alike chooses herself, it’s the most beautiful we’ve ever seen the city. Both are breath-taking.

Pariah established Dee Rees as a director of note – she’s got something to say and a visual style to back it up, a real feast for the eyes and a jolt to the heart.