The Sundance Film Festival returned to an in-person event again last week, but also offered robust online offerings. This year, the queer component was large and varied.
My favorite Sundance narrative feature was “Mutt,” Vuk Lungulov-Klotz’s directorial debut. Fena is a young trans boy living in New York anc dealing with one hellaciously challenging day that includes reuniting with a love interest, hanging out with his sister and a visit from his father. It’s all vividly staged and acted with nuance by Lío Mehiel as Fena. The character of Fena is a different person at the end of the film and Mehiel and Lungulov-Klotz combine to capture that beautifully.
“Passages” is the latest by Ira Sachs, known for such gay fare as “Love is Strange” and “Keep the Lights On.” Tomas (Franz Rogowski, the breakout star of “The Great Freedom,”) is married to his partner of 15 years, Martin (Ben Whishaw). One night Tomas meets Agathe (Adele Exarchopoulos, in her best screen work since “Blue is the Warmest Color”), and the two start an affair. How the three navigate the affair is the crux of the film. At times, it seems everyone here is largely unhappy, but Sachs nonetheless gives this drama layers and three-dimensional characters. One explicit sex scene between Whishaw and Rogowski is a bit shocking.
“L’immensita” works mostly as a showcase for the wondrous Penelope Cruz and newcomer Luana Giuliani. It takes place in early ’70s Rome, where Clara (Cruz) is married to her husband and has three children, one of whom — Adri (Giuliani) — has started to identify as a boy. There are some very stirring moments in the story of a family moving forward, based on director Emanuele Crialese’s own experiences.
The black comedy, “Rotting in the Sun,” is not for everyone. Sebastián Silva plays himself, a filmmaker, whose manager sends him to a gay nude beach to snap him out of a depression. There he meets a social media influencer who wants to collaborate. A twist occurs when the influencer comes to Mexico City, taking “Sun” in another direction. The film received a lot of press for its unsimulated gay sex scenes, which give “Rotting in the Sun” a candor unseen in many films, but I personally found the second half more involving than the earlier goings-on.
Maryam Keshavarz’s “The Persian Version” is a bright comedy-drama that celebrates family. Iranian American Leila (Layla Mohammadi) is dealing with her father’s heart transplant and being herself as an out woman, which doesn’t always jibe with her relatives. “The Persian Version” packs too much into its 107 minutes, but is ultimately a charming crowd-pleaser.
Another film that debuted at Sundance was “Fairyland,” which benefits from some star wattage. “CODA” star Emilia Jones plays Alysia, whose father Steven (Scoot McNairy) moves her to San Francisco in the 1970s when her mother passes unexpectedly. Geena Davis plays her disapproving grandmother. The film is based on Alysia Abbott’s 2013 memoir and is directed by Andrew Durham in his debut feature. “Fairyland’s” sharpest element is the complex and thorny relationship between a father and a daughter who quickly develops her own set of dreams.
“Eileen” isn’t a full-fledged lesbian flick, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun. In ’60s Boston, Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) is stuck living at home and working in a prison when she becomes fascinated with new employee Rebecca (Anne Hathaway). It’s based on Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel and directed by William Oldroyd. The relationship between the two women and how Eileen feels is a little ambiguous, but it’s stirring, thanks in huge part to the central performances and some twists.
My favorite documentary was Lisa Cortes’ “Little Richard: I Am Everything,” a comprehensive film about the life of the historic Georgia-born rocker. Using archival footage and all sorts of interviews, it manages to bring the titular character to life, expertly charting some of the challenges Richard faced moving up in the industry and dealing with being a gay man. The artist himself might not have gotten his due until later in his life, but the film is a love letter to him. Close behind was “Kokomo City,” D. Smith’s funny and bold film about Black transgender sex workers in New York and Georgia. Many of the subjects are local and “Kokomo City,” told in black and white, has a freshness and wit to it.
Another excellent documentary is Alexandria Bombach’s “Only Life After All,” which follows Grammy-winning Atlanta-based duo Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, also known as Indigo Girls. “Only Life” charts how the two came together and moved from local venues to mainstream success. Yet they’ve never lost sight of what they do and why and have remarkably stayed themselves.
Atlanta’s largest film festival, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, opens next week and runs February 8 through 21 with its usual quota of international films, some of them queer themed. One is Idan Haguel’s “Concerned Citizen.” In it, Ben and his boyfriend Raz are a well-off couple in a Tel Aviv neighborhood, planning to have a child together. Ben plants a sapling outside to make the area look better and the action inadvertently leads to the arrest of an Eritrean migrant. The satirical aspect might not click exactly like the director planned, but “Concerned Citizen” is certainly a film that will have audiences talking and debating afterward. Another offering is “America,” directed by Ofir Raul Graizer. Yotam and Iris are about to get married when Yotam’s best friend returns to Tel Aviv after his father passes. A love triangle ensues. In 2017 Graizer made the film, “The Cakemaker,” and this new one has some parallels. It’s quite moving, with three persuasive performances from the leads and an unpredictable nature. Also look for Francois Ozon’s “Everything Went Fine” and Claudia Weill’s 1978 “Girlfriends.”
The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival runs February 8–21 at various area venues.