Can you trust a film festival to keep delivering the goods after 30 years? In the case of Out On Film, I’d say yes. (Make that a hell yes.) At 31, this year’s lineup is as good as it gets.
With “Hearts Beat Loud” and “Love, Simon” in theaters this year, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Boy Erased,” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” on the way, and “Pose” on cable, plus LGBTQ characters in just about every TV series (the ones I watch anyway), you can raise the old argument that we don’t need an LGBTQ film festival anymore. For the 31st edition, Out On Film Director (and Georgia Voice contributor) Jim Farmer has scoured the earth to find 128 features and shorts, most of which will be hard to see anywhere else.
Judging from the more than two dozen features I was able to preview, I’d say the quality is better than ever. Having so much mainstream competition has obviously raised the bar. I might feel differently in Awards Season, but I started watching festival films during the summer, when there were only a handful of decent movies in theaters. The combined budget of all the festival films was probably less than that of “Skyscraper,” but don’t get me started on who benefits from the federal tax cut. They’re not all great, but most are better than the “Fifty Shades” trilogy, and each has the power to make some reader of this paper say, “Hey, that’s my story on the screen!”
This year’s festival runs Sept. 27–Oct. 7, primarily at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinemas. Alternate locations are noted in the reviews below, but it’s always wise to check the festival’s website (OutOnFilm.org) for last-minute changes.
The following films are rated on a four-star scale.
WHEN THE BEAT DROPS (***)
(Sept. 27, 7pm)
This Atlanta-filmed documentary is a lot like “Pose,” without the advantages of a bigger budget and more time to develop characters. In the early ’90s, gay African Americans in the South created bucking, a synchronized dance style based on cheerleaders’ moves. The film includes plenty of spectacular examples, plus personal stories of Atlantans including Anthony Davis, who formed a group of buck dancers, Phi Phi, and organized some competitions, including Atlanta’s Live the Dream. Much of the final half-hour is devoted to a competition. Director Jamal Sims gives Atlanta its place in the spotlight as the epicenter of the craze.
(Sept. 27, 9:15pm)
One night in Berlin, Michael (Jo Weil) finds Will (Pip Brignall), a visiting Englishman half his age, handcuffed to a lamppost. Michael frees Will and invites him home, where you can guess what happens, even though Will is engaged to his childhood girlfriend. In one of the most intimate films ever, the two sit or lie around talking and drinking mescal all night, which will be too much for many viewers. You can see and feel the totally committed actors falling in love. Could it mean they remain together? No spoilers here.
MY BIG GAY ITALIAN WEDDING (***)
(Sept. 29, 12:45pm)
Antonio (Cristiano Caccamo) and Paolo (Salvatore Esposito), Italians living in Berlin, are in love. Antonio proposes to Paolo and invites him home to meet his parents in the scenic small town where his homophobic father is the mayor. His mother, however, immediately starts planning the wedding — but with conditions that would be impossible to meet if this weren’t a screwball comedy. There’s seriousness, too (Italy still hasn’t approved same-sex marriage) but enough silliness to turn the balance in the direction of fun. The big climactic musical number is in English, so you can sing along.
(Sept. 29, 4:45pm)
I’m just not woman enough to appreciate a movie like “Snapshots.” Rose (Piper Laurie in one of her career-best performances) is hosting her conservative daughter Patty (Brooke Adams) and troubled granddaughter Allison (Emily Baldoni) at her lake house for a weekend. Old photos trigger flashbacks to 1960, when young Rose (Shannon Collis) was wooed and eventually won by “free spirit” Louise (Emily Goss) while both were married to men and the couples hung out together. Based on a true story, “Snapshots” comes off as soapy, and seems long and repetitious for its 95-minute running time.
(Sept. 29, 7pm)
It’s Christmastime 1985 and Adrian (Cory Michael Smith) has flown from New York to pay his first visit in three years (and probably his last) to his conservative Texas family. His teenage brother shows signs of following in his light-in-the-loafers footsteps, but their parents (Virginia Madsen, Michael Chiklis) are still clueless about both of them. Adrian’s farewell tour may keep you on the verge of tears throughout. A lack of drawls lessens the regional authenticity but nothing can take away from the film’s emotional authenticity, which packs a real wallop. It’s another winner for gay filmmaker Yen Tan.
STUDIO 54 (***)
(Sept. 29, 9:05pm)
When a time machine is invented, this documentary will make Studio 54 (1977–1980) a top destination. The creators of the Manhattan disco tell the tale. Steve Rubell, who died of AIDS in 1989 and is seen in old interviews, was the face of the club, a gay man who loved celebrities and celebrity. Ian Schrager, with whom Rubell became friends in college, was the brains, the man behind the curtain — in recent interviews, he says he’s discussing those days for the first time. Be warned: This is largely a sad story of those happy times and their aftermath.
DYKES, CAMERA, ACTION! (***1/2)
(Sept. 30, 5:10 p.m.)
It’s amazing what you can cram into an hour when you know what you’re doing, and Caroline Berler obviously does. This course in the History of Lesbian Cinema begins in the ’60s, when Hollywood required queers to meet a grim fate. In the ’70s, Barbara Hammer and Su Friedrich made experimental films, while lesbian vampires became a thing in horror movies. The ’80s brought lesbian narratives by men with big budgets and women with smaller ones. The New Queer Cinema of the ’90s was all male at first. Interviewees include filmmakers and scholars who sound intelligent but not dry and intellectual.
CANARY (KANARIE) (***)
(Sept. 30, 7pm)
In South Africa in the mid-80s, a smalltown boy (cue Bronski Beat) is drafted into the (white) army. Because of his musical talent, Johan (Schalk Bezuidenhout) gets into a special military/religious chorus, the Canaries. Enough of the members are gay that most of the others don’t care, but Boy George-idolizing Johan isn’t sure what he is. The army makes a man of him — a self-loathing homosexual man — in this fine musical drama with elements of comedy and romance. You may get whiplash from the plot’s sharp turns, but it’s worth it.
JUST FRIENDS (***)
(Sept. 30, 9:30pm)
Being gay is no longer an issue in much of the world, so potential fictional lovers need other obstacles to overcome. The mother of Dutch Jew Joris (Josha Stradowski) wants to build a wall to keep Syrian immigrant Yad (Majd Mardo) out of her son, even though her own mother (Jenny Arean) played Cupid to bring the guys together. An extraneous scene of real-world problems suggests an area of incompatibility that’s shrugged off as something else for love to conquer for a happy ending. As long as Stradowski displays his bod, gay viewers won’t care what else happens.
FREELANCERS ANONYMOUS (**1/2) (Oct. 1, 7pm)
As I watched this lesbian comedy, my critic side started noticing little flaws in the script that kept getting bigger. Billie (Lisa Cordileone), who is planning to marry Gayle (Natasha Negovanlis), quits her miserable job. Discovering Freelancers Anonymous, a purposeless group, Billie pushes them to develop an app to connect people with jobs, then plans a launch party to coincide with her wedding. While the film is watchable and sometimes enjoyable, someone should have pointed out to writers Cordileone and Amy Dellagiarino and director Sonia Sebastián that the script wouldn’t get a passing grade in Screenwriting 101.
EVERY ACT OF LIFE (***)
(Oct. 1, 7:05pm)
Theater queens, gather ’round! Jeff Kaufman packs an amazing amount of information about gay playwright Terrence McNally into this documentary, with a more star-studded cast than the average Tony-Award telecast in interviews and performance clips. Born in 1939 and raised in Corpus Christi, McNally was out from Day One when he hit New York. Not so for his first two serious lovers, playwright Edward Albee and actor Robert Drivas. “The Ritz,” “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and “Master Class” are just three highlights of a career as awesome as Kaufman’s ability to include so much without seeming to rush or overwhelm you.
(Oct. 1, 9pm)
Australia’s LGBT history gets thrown onto the barbie in a film similar in tone to last year’s “BPM.” Confrontational Lance Gowland (Damon Herriman) falls in love with the more conservative Dr. Jim Walker (Xavier Samuel). Leading the lesbians is outspoken Marg McMann (Kate Box). Their personal dramas are set within the larger context of the political movement between 1972 and 1978. It builds to the first Gay Mardi Gras in Sydney, which the police turn into the riot of the title. The main characters are real people who were involved in creating the event, which has continued annually ever since.
GOOD MANNERS (***1/2)
(Oct. 2, 7pm)
The main character’s a lesbian and has some love scenes early on, but “Good Manners” is a horror movie, potentially a classic of the genre. Rich, white, and pregnant Ana (Marjorie Estiano) hires poor, black Clara (Isabél Zuaa) to be a nanny when her son is born. Meanwhile she moves Clara in as housekeeper, cook, and companion. But when the moon is full Clara learns other things about Ana that set “Good Manners” apart from other Brazilian interracial lesbian romances. The second half takes place seven years later, when sex is less important than survival. Horror fans, don’t miss it!
AFTER FOREVER (***)
(Oct. 2, 7:05pm)
The surprise ending of the first (of eight) episodes of this web-series establishes the premise. After a party for Brian (Kevin Spirtas) and Jason’s (Mitchell Anderson) 15th anniversary, we learn Jason died of cancer a year ago. We still see him, in flashbacks and Brian’s memories and fantasies — and sometimes as a guardian angel, watching over Brian and helping him move on. Brian’s resistance to moving on and how it’s gradually worn down is the series’ main thrust, with friends and even Jason’s parents trying to fix him up. Bingeing on the first season will whet your appetite for a second.
(Oct. 2, 9:10pm)
Leon (Aaron Altaras, whose big brown eyes will haunt my dreams), a German, faces some resentment when he joins a Swiss soccer team as a stepping stone to the pros; but he and Mario (Max Hubacher) make a great offensive team-within-a-team, so things are cool until a (true) rumor that they’re teaming up off the field as well catches them in a jock’s trap. Professional sports is one of the last frontiers where coming out is risky, so the lovers in this overlong but solid Swiss drama may be forced to choose between a career and each other.
MAN MADE (***)
(Oct. 3, 7pm)
The category is … Transgender Bodybuilding! A different, probably better documentary than you’re expecting, “Man Made” profiles four contestants in the 2016 Trans FitCon, the world’s only all-transgender bodybuilding competition, held in Atlanta since 2014. The contest is anticlimactic here. The wonderful part is getting to know Dominic, Rese, Mason, and Kennie — four guys from different parts of the country and in different stages of their transitions — in the preceding months. Collectively they’ll answer most of the questions you have about transgenders, especially FTMs. Each could be the subject of their own movie. Incidentally, director T Cooper is also FTM.
MALILA: THE FAREWELL FLOWER (**1/2)
(Oct. 3, 7:05pm)
This Thai drama for the nichest of audiences breaks into two roughly equal halves, though explaining why would be a spoiler. The first half, a gay love story, begins by exploring the impressive Thai art of flower weaving, here called Baisri. The weaver, Pich, is visiting the jasmine plantation of his old friend Shane, who proposes they move in together after he serves a short time as a monk in hopes of curing Pich’s cancer. In the second half, Shane the monk wanders through the countryside, meditating while staring at rotting corpses. If that’s for you, check it out.
HARD PAINT (***)
(Oct. 3, 9:10pm)
If the festival’s gotten too PG for you, here’s the movie with male nudity and gay sex. That’s all I’m sure of, because when you think you know what you’re watching, it becomes something else. Shy, antisocial Pedro (impressive actor Shico Menegat) makes a living in front of a webcam, smearing himself with fluorescent paint, dancing and masturbating in an erotic chatroom as NeonBoy. When he starts losing viewers to a competitor, Boy25/Leo (Bruno Fernandes), they meet, become a doubles act, and fall in love. But with Pedro’s mental instability, anything can happen — and you’ll want to see what does.
FRIENDS IN LAW (**1/2)
(Oct. 4, 7:20pm)
Like a bad TV movie, this Indian romcom solves all the world’s problems in an hour and a half. An opening number suggests a Bollywood musical, but there are no more. It’s at the wedding of the straight son of a well-to-do Indian family. His exiled gay brother demands their mother, Indu (Shreedevi Chowdary), visit him in Bangkok. He’s delayed in New York so his boyfriend Steve (Ashlin Harris) meets Indu at the airport, shows her around, and wins her heart. “Friends in Law” could help India accept its LGBTQ citizens, and that’s more important than any technical flaws.
A MOMENT IN THE REEDS (***)
(Oct. 4, 9:10pm)
Two hot young men fall in love and get acquainted in this Finnish drama. That means a lot of talking (mostly in English), and so “action” may be filmed too tastefully for some tastes. Finnish blond Leevi (Janne Puustinen) visits Jouko (Mika Melender), his widowed, homophobic father who’s hired a handyman to work on their country house. Tareq (Boodi Kabbani) is a recently arrived Syrian refugee, which doesn’t sit well with Jouko either. The acting’s fine, the story’s relatable. If you can handle the languid pace, you’ll probably fall in love with one, if not (as I did) both leading men.
DEVIL’S PATH (***)
(Oct. 5, 9pm, Out Front)
For some time, you wonder whether “Devil’s Path” is going to get good; then it does and – wow! Noah (Stephen Twardokus, terrific) tells us he has always felt safe in the woods but not around people. But the part of the woods he hangs out in is a notorious gay cruising spot. One day romantic Noah meets cynical “Patrick” (JD Scalzo), his polar opposite, and they wind up lost in the woods. Forget all that, because most of it isn’t true. It’s a setup that sets you up for the twists to come in this little indie that could … and does.
(Oct. 6, 3:15pm, Out Front)
By the end of the slick, professional “TransMilitary,” you’ll feel you’ve met four trans persons — two FTM and two MTF — and gotten to know them pretty well. You’ll share their victories and disappointments, and maybe shed a tear or two. All four (Senior Airman Logan Ireland, Cpl. Laila Villanueva, Capt. Jennifer Peace, and 1st Lt. El Cook) serve honorably in the military, or did during most of the filming, between 2014–16, when they were still forbidden to serve openly. That changed, then changed back, and the issue is still bouncing around in the courts.
THE QUEENS (**)
(Oct. 6, 5pm, Out Front)
The award for Most Hyperactive Editing Ever goes to “The Queens,” a documentary about Chicago’s Miss Continental USA pageant for female impersonators. Not wanting to leave anything out, director/editor Mark Saxenmeyer bombards us with images (as many as 15 onscreen at one time, for a few seconds) and ideas faster than the human brain can process them. There are clips from almost 40 years of pageants and interviews with contestants, including Atlantans, leading up to the “current” contest, which turns out to be 2011’s. A lot of good material, but it’s 30 pounds of movie stuffed into a five-pound bag.
IDEAL HOME (***)
(Oct. 6, 7pm, Plaza)
For 10 years, Erasmus (Steve Coogan), who hosts a TV cooking show, and Paul (Paul Rudd) have been loving each other and bickering constantly. Enter a 10 year old (Jack Gore) whose father was fathered by Erasmus in the ’80s. Dad’s in jail and he needs a place to stay. Yes, our guys warm to the kid, but things don’t get nearly as sappy as they usually do in these comedies, partly due to all the hard-R dialogue, much of it really funny. Based on his own experience, out writer-director Andrew Fleming entertainingly makes the point that same-sex couples can raise children.
WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY (**1/2)
(Oct. 6, 7pm, Out Front)
Nobody puts a dick in Dickinson in Madeleine Olnek’s story of the Bull of Amherst. Molly Shannon plays the older version of the reclusive poet in somber, ghostlike fashion, leaving the real acting to Susan Ziegler as Susan, Emily’s sister-in-law and lover. Adapting her own play, Olnek incorporates wonderful bits of subtle humor while the main plot wanders in time, taking too long to explain how the narrator, Mabel (Amy Seimetz) fits in. It’s not as dull as I found Terence Davies’ Dickinson-centric “A Quiet Passion,” but not as original as Olnek’s marvelous “Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same.”
FOR IZZY (***)
(Oct. 7, 1pm, Out Front)
Dede (Michelle Ang) is a high-functioning addict (and lesbian) and Laura (Jennifer Soo a lower-functioning autistic. They’re in the Selfie Generation, so we get a lot of their story via blogs, cell phones, etc. When they become neighbors, a romance develops between Laura’s father (Jim Lau) and Dede’s mother (Elizabeth Sung), both natives of Hong Kong. A friendship between the younger women happens more slowly, with Dede learning responsibility and Laura independence. The climax strains credibility but gets us where we want to go. It’s hard to imagine a woman creating better female characters than writer-director Alex Chu has done.
CALL HER GANDA (***)
(Oct. 7, 3pm)
Director PJ Raval’s artfully assembled documentary examines the 2014 murder of Filipina trans woman Jennifer Laude and its aftermath. The accused killer, U.S. Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton, met Jennifer in a bar and took her to a hotel, where discovering her male genitalia enraged him. Until then, no American had been convicted of crimes against natives on Philippine soil; so in addition to “Justice for Jennifer,” some demonstrators demanded the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from their country. Raval helps you process the many facts and opinions by slowing down periodically to focus on people or scenery while soothing music plays.
(Oct. 7, 8pm, Out Front)
A drag queen as old as her jokes, Jackie (Derren Nesbitt) is dying of cancer, with weeks to live. A straight cross-dresser, he’s a widower estranged from his daughter, with no friends. That changes when he offers Faith (Jordan Stephens), the new kid in the show, a place to stay. In their brief but beautiful friendship, Faith proves to be the perfect companion, nurse, and occasional sparring partner. The movie hits most of the right notes in just the right way, staying on the good side of the fine line between sentimental and maudlin.