“Ponyboi” / Publicity photo

Sundance and Atlanta Jewish Film Festival Bring Forth LGBTQ Fare

The just-finished Sundance Film Festival has always been known for its strong share of LGBTQ programming, and this year several queer-themed films debuted and made strong impressions.

“Ponyboi” was one of the most buzzed-about titles at this year’s event. It’s based on a 2019 short film about an intersex runaway in New Jersey on the hunt for love, starring River Gallo, who also wrote the film and co-directed. Gallo has expanded the short into an impressive feature, directed by Esteban Arango. If the script can feel a bit padded at times, the film is redeemed by great acting — especially from Gallo, also featured in the 2023 intersex documentary, “Every Body” — and a terrific sense of time and place. The closing sequences also pack a lot of emotion.

The U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic and the Directing Award: Dramatic went to Alessandra Lacorazza’s “In the Summers.” Two sisters — Violeta and Eva — pay a visit to their father, Vicente, in Las Cruces, New Mexico, every summer. The film follows four of those visits, as well as the changing natures of the young women and their shifting feelings about Vicente. One of the daughters also discovers her attraction to other women. This is a deceptively simple work that has real power. The entire cast is wonderful, with René Pérez Joglar (the musician known professionally as Residente) a real find as Vicente and Lío Mehiel (from last year’s “Mutt”) continuing to impress.

From director Amrou Al-Kadhi comes “Layla,” in which an Arab drag queen (Bilal Hasna) discovers what it’s like to find love. They meet Max (Louis Greatorex) at a Pride event and begin dating. Much of the movie is about self-growth as the titular character learns to find their footing in life, professionally and personally, and Hasna has charisma and charm to spare. It’s a satisfying watch, even if one of the central conflicts of the film seems cruel and rather self-inflicted.

Another film I had the chance to watch was “Sebastian.” It’s from Mikko Mäkelä, the director of the highly acclaimed, “A Moment in the Reeds.” Max (Ruaridh Mollica) is a mid-20s writer living in London, working on a story about gay sex workers. As part of his research, he decides to dive headfirst into the world and find out what it’s like. Rather predictably, Max finds there is more to the craft than he envisions — some of it sexy and some of it scary. Like “Layla,” it is not a perfect film, but one whose main character’s journey is the real entrée.

Look for many (or all) of these films later this year in either festivals or theaters.

The biggest film festival in Atlanta, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, opens next week with the drama, “Irena’s Vow,” and closes with the documentary, “Shari and Lamb Chop.” In between are a number of LGBTQ-themed films.

In the riveting “The Performance,” a dance company (with at least one gay member) faces a dilemma. It’s 1937, and Harold May (Jeremy Piven), a tap dancer and an American Jew with almost no money, faces an ethical issue when he is offered a substantial amount of money for a series of bookings, only to find out that he will be performing one night before Hitler himself. Piven — in excellent form — and Robert Carlyle headline the cast. “The Performance” is based on a 2002 Arthur Miller short story and director Shira Piven, Jeremy’s sister, will be in attendance for two screenings.

Another offering to check out is Valerie Kontakos’ documentary, “Queen of the Deuce.” Its colorful lead is Chelly Wilson (born Rachel Serrero), a Greek Jew who was a prominent figure in the porn industry in New York, living literally above a movie theater screening gay adult films. Wilson is referred to as always “larger than life” early on, and she is indeed a fascinating central character with many dimensions. Although she has been married, she is a lesbian. “Queen of the Deuce” uses many techniques — some animation, archival footage, and plenty of interviews — and is absorbing fare.

The best of the bunch may be John Hay’s “Willem and Frieda,” a well-made documentary hosted and produced by actor Stephen Fry. It chronicles two little-known LGBTQ figures who were part of the Dutch resistance. Willem Arondeus was an openly gay painter and Frieda Belinfante a lesbian cellist who used their strengths to keep Jewish people safe. How their actions impacted others and themselves makes for essential viewing.

Also playing — but not screened — is Stefan Bühling’s “Martha Liebermann: A Stolen Life,” based on a true story about a German Jewish painter’s widow living in Nazi-occupied Germany.

The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival runs February 13 to 26 at multiple area venues and streams February 27 to March 7.