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The Tree Remembers《還有一些樹》

Asian Cinema, Documentary, Film Festival, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

We begin with the indigenous Orang Asli, a Malayan tribe whose history has been a story of unfortunate repetition: unceasing repression and regular retreats into the shadows of the Jungle.

Nowadays, only a handful of their ancestors remain, and it is via these few survivors that we’re provided detailed accounts of their generational struggle against deforestation and general lack of recognition.

Then we switch to a new and totally unrelated example of Malaysian subjugation, the 1969 513 Incident, wherein similarly journalistic accounts from survivors are delivered in sit-down interviews.

We wonder whether the entire film will follow this pattern of episodic examples of disparate injustices inflicted by the vague yet forbidding Malaysian government oppressor; we wonder when some form of story will be introduced, or whether this will all be a retrospective observation of the past…

After some time, we come to understand that hindsight is where we shall remain; that there is no real link between the two events, besides its common antagonist and general air of injustice.

On the rare occasion, there are modest attempts at creating some kind of atmosphere to reinforce or validate the recounts of the interviewees, but for the most part, the ‘mood dept.’ was seemingly a casualty of the film’s modest budget.

In this way, much of the film feels unfurnished and lacking in any trace of artistic expression. We’re consequently left with a film unsure of itself, as though it cannot commit to a sensation — other than pity — that it wants to provoke in the audience.

This gives the overall impression that the film’s sole intention is that the audience remembers a forgotten moment of history — mind you, this of course is a totally worthy motive, but when executed without any conviction, it can, ironically, have the opposite of the desired effect: an unmemorable film.

As a consequence, the film bears the mundane air of a high-school history class.

Ironically, what’s described as unfurnished filmmaking does not, in this instance, translate to authenticity, as it might for a similarly-toned Al Jazeera history doco (which are in themselves very informative programs, but that said, are under no illusions that they belong on festival circuits), nor does it endow the film with the air of authority of a minimalist film. In the case of The Tree Remembers (as is the case with most minimalist things; sterile, white-clad cafes, for instance), unfurnished means both uninspired and indecisive.

But then, the film suddenly redeems itself (to an insufficient yet pleasant extent) in the last 10 minutes, as one of the 513 survivors declares that only the trees are witnesses — finally uniting the two stories with the beautiful proverb, ‘what the axe forgets, the tree remembers’. Of course, we now understand that deforestation of the Orang Asli land is a perfect metaphor for the erasure of our memory.

This, however, is not only delivered too late in the piece, but with way too much subtlety; especially for those unfamiliar with the proverb in the first place.

The way in which these two threads came together was resemblant of a neat, Hollywood, last-minute knot; leading us to ask ourselves why they didn’t tie it together earlier, with some simple interweaving, or even through a humble plait?! The answer, we contend, is because the idea only arrived in the editing room, when all the filming was done — which is to say, too late. Maybe, it will have more of an impact in Malaysia or other nearby countries (Taiwan, for instance, where the film is streaming in the national festival), where the proverb is more well known.

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Growing Pains《少年阿堯》

Asian Cinema, Festival, Film Festival, Review, short film, This Week Leave a Comment

Taiwanese short film, Growing Pains focuses on fourteen-year-old Yao (Chen Chong-En), who has had enough of his dilapidated sneakers.

Tired of having them merely repaired again and again by his financially strapped father (Yi Wen-Chen), who can’t afford to replace them, Yao attempts to convince his father to purchase a new pair.

For Yao, this becomes his obsession, and it is all that he focuses and concentrates on – he is eager to not be scoffed at by his classmates and wants to be able to match his peers on the track team.

One day, Yao’s father receives a visit from debt collectors, which ends in a nasty dispute. Immediately following this, Yao suddenly gets a pair of shoes from his father. What Yao fails to realise is how close his father is to real, far-reaching trouble.

Whilst his father makes attempts to get approval from his son, trying to uphold his dignity, and deal with unscrupulous standover men, Yao remains largely unaware of what his father is going through – and how near he is to facing serious problems and becoming insolvent.

All he can think about is his decrepit shoes and how much he wants a new pair.

Heavily in arrears to the debt collectors, Yao’s father continues to hope (dream) a lottery will help him out of his financial woes, pay his bad debt and give him respite and peace which he so needs and craves.

Despite the fact that his father toils and is under pressure from his outstanding financial obligations, things remain tense between the two, and Yao never fully understands the magnitude and severity of the situation.

The film is directed by Tapei-born filmmaker Po-Yu Lin, partly based on his adolescent encounters with his father.

This is a sharp, thoughtful study of the relationships between parents and children, the father-son bond and the sacrifices parents make by putting children first.

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Diana’s Wedding

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

The second feature from Norwegian director, Charlotte Blom, takes an unusual look at love and marriage in a romantic comedy that hides a bitter aftertaste.

It’s 1981 and Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer have gotten married. On the same day in Norway, young couple Liv (Marie Blokhus) and Terje (Pål Sverre Hagen) celebrate their own nuptials alongside their baby daughter, Diana. Liv and Terje love each other dearly, but have an unusual approach to how they show it to each other and their children.

Over the course of forty years, we watch them scream at each other, cut down doors using chainsaws and get wildly drunk. They even use their daughter as a conduit to pass on insults to each other in a manner similar to the grotesque Charlie and Stella in The League of Gentlemen. Sometimes, it’s played for laughs, and sometimes, the impact it’s having on Diana and her little brother is heartbreaking. To hear from Liv and Terje though, you’d think nothing was wrong. As they drunkenly pick apart the ongoing issues with the aforementioned royal couple, they seem utterly blinkered to their own selfish behaviour.

Blom’s film asks us to be sympathetic to Liv and Terje, encouraging us to laugh at the toxic couple, while also inviting us to cheer them on. To elicit further sympathy, the director regularly compares them to their ostensibly perfect neighbours, Unni (Jannike Kruse) and Olav (Olav Waastad). As the years go by, Unni and Olav’s marriage is revealed to be just as problematic as Liv and Terje’s.

However, while both couples drink heavily, tease their children and are generally awful to each other, the key difference, Blom explicitly states through Unni and Olav’s daughter, is that Liv and Terje genuinely love each other. Whether you’ll agree to that is dependent on how won over you are by our protagonists and their alcohol fuelled misadventures.

All of the above dovetails into the grown Diana fearing that her parents arrive to her own wedding in 2020. It feels like this should have been the main narrative of the film on to which the director could have hung flashbacks to when the bride was much younger. As it is, the titular wedding takes up a surprisingly small amount of time in the film and the resolution of 40 years of dysfunctional parenting fails to convince.

Overall, Diana’s Wedding reinvents the romantic comedy by capturing a side of marriage that isn’t often shown on screen.

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Asian Cinema, Festival, Film Festival, Review, short film, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

There is a distinct sense of politically charged awareness and anxiety, which hangs over Taiwanese romance, Butterflies, set sometime in the near future.

In this setting, the island country has been occupied and taken over by an oppressive regime and turned into a province of this empire.

Within this Orwellian situation, a young woman, Yu (Han Ning) is accused of conspiring against the incumbent ruling power and hiding her treasonous family, who refuse to obey and comply with the new administration.

After escaping from the clutches of the authorities that have detained her, Yu attempts to find Lien (Yu Pei Jen), a plastic surgeon who can change her appearance and aid her in escaping the totalitarian state.

The desire for freedom and free-will however, renders Yu vulnerable to and desperate for help and a safe harbour. She is ultimately seduced by the charm and charisma of Lien, who represents hope and love. However, things are not as ideal as they may seem…

So begins this 43-minute Taiwanese dystopian film, set in Taipei.

Interestingly, the film is not directed by a Taiwanese-born filmmaker, but by Spanish (Catalan) expat and Taiwan-based director Albert Ventura.

Nonetheless, it is a movie informed by, and with distinct parallels, to Taiwan’s past and present. Although this story is told from an outsider’s view, the two characters reflect the past, dark days of the Taiwanese White Terror period (May 1949 – July 1987) and its modern-day challenges. There are echoes of the political angst of current and past Taiwan, and the horrors faced, in Yu and Lien’s search for freedom – this is a country which only came out of martial law in 1987 yet faces threats to its acceptance and adoption of democracy and its freedom.

The burgeoning relationship between its two characters nods to hope of a free and independent future for Taiwan, whilst the dire and difficult climate they’re caught within acknowledges the past the country has faced – and its subsequent legacy.

Despite the challenges faced by its two characters and the diabolic political state they and those in the film find themselves in, the film is optimistic for Taiwan’s future.

Butterflies recognises this upside – as well as charts the precarious road ahead.

This is one sci-fi fans and genre buffs will enjoy.

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My Missing Valentine

Asian Cinema, Festival, Film Festival, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

Life for Yang Hsiao-Chi (Patty Lee) has always moved at a different pace to those around her. When she was young, she was always going too fast, just off by a few seconds with those around her; jumping the starting gun in races, laughing too early at jokes in the cinema, Hsiao-Chi is never quite in synch with the world around her.

At the age of thirty, she is working in a Taipei post office lamenting that she hasn’t yet found her place in the world. Specifically, she lacks any romantic attachment, so when the handsome Liu Wen-Sen (Duncan Lai) comes into her quotidian world she is quickly swept off her feet by the handsome and attentive man and for the first time finds herself with plans for Valentine’s Day.

In reality, Hsiao-Chi’s world is anything but normal. Waking up on what she believes to be Valentine’s Day, she finds that she has missed the day completely. All she knows is that the day didn’t happen to her and for some mysterious reason she is sunburnt.

Soon, she finds a picture of herself at a beach that she can’t remember posing for, and decides with the help of an anthropomorphic dream gecko to go in search of her missing day, which may also lead her to her missing valentine and perhaps even her missing father who years ago went out for tofu pudding and never returned.

A Tai (Liu Kuan-Ting) has also lived a life that is out of synch with the rest of the world. For him, he’s always a few seconds behind. He works as a bus driver and every day comes to Hsiao-Chi’s counter to mail a letter. The reason for his interest in her becomes clear as the film progresses – they once shared time together as children after an accident placed them both in hospital and he has been pining for her ever since.

Hsiao-Chi’s missing day becomes A Tai’s extra day, and the bus driver is given a chance to finally spend some time with the object of his affection.

Writer/director Yu-Hsun Chen has crafted a whimsical fantasy world where the rules of logic don’t apply. The missing/extra day is the crux of a narrative that suggests that love ignores rules, including, it would seem, the rules of conscious choice. Whilst the film is cloaked as a heartfelt romantic comedy there is something a little off with the choices behind the premise. The film espouses “Love yourself because someone out there loves you,” but what if that someone is a person you only half remember as a childhood friend who takes to essentially stalking you for years and through the strange missing/extra day takes you on an adventure only he is conscious for?

My Missing Valentine is at heart good-natured and plays around with the conventions of romantic comedy to the extent that the slightly disturbing undercurrent of the film can be dismissed up to a point. Patty Lee is charming in the lead role and the quirkiness of the film papers over what could be viewed as a darker level of viewership.

Perhaps, it is best to just experience the oddball world Yu-Hsun Chen has created on a surface level and not go too deep into the philosophical connotations that it presents. If you’re prepared to just go along for the ride, My Missing Valentine is an interesting and sometimes delightful film that wears its heart on its absurdist sleeve.

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Game, Gaming, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Has there ever been a more appropriate moment in history for the time loop conceit to become popular? While huge sections of Earth’s population are stuck indoors, it seems fitting that the storytelling conceit du jour should reflect that. In 2019 we had Netflix’s Russian Doll, followed last year by the engaging Palm Springs. In the world of video games, Hades recently launched to near universal acclaim and this year saw the excellent (albeit punishingly difficult) Returnal. Well, now to that august pantheon we can add Arkane Studio’s Deathloop and friends we won’t mince words, it’s an absolutely bloody belter.

Deathloop puts you in the shoes of Cole, an assassin with amnesia, who wakes up on the island of Blackreef with no clue how he got there. It soon becomes clear that he, like the rest of Blackreef, is stuck in a time loop, one day repeating endlessly. If he ever hopes to leave, it seems, he needs to uncover the many secrets of Blackreef and kill the eight so-called Visionaries (mad scientists and brainy psychos) all in one day. If he misses one? The loop starts again. If he dies? The loop starts again. And if the sassy, insane Julianna – who follows his progress – has her way? He’ll be stuck in the loop forever.

As fun as the concept is, Deathloop’s real genius is in the execution. Arkane has a great formula with the Dishonored series and Prey, but they struggled with finding a reason to go back through the insanely gorgeous, detail-rich environments they created. In Deathloop, there’s a plot-based reason to backtrack at different times of the day, after various events have occurred, and the entire process feels like a fiendishly clever puzzle rich with hidden nooks, crannies and juicy lore snippets.

Each of the Visionaries feels like a fully fleshed human being (albeit an unpleasant one) and working out how to manipulate their weaknesses to off them in clever ways is a supreme joy. It’s not an easy task, but as you kill them you’ll manage to take their powers (in the form of Slabs), which give you the ability to teleport short distances, turn invisible, link enemies and deal damage to multiple targets at once or hurl them across the map with telekinesis. Working out how to maximise the effectiveness of these powers, in conjunction with the decent-sized arsenal you can wield, offers so much gleefully homicidal variety that it never gets old in the game’s 15-20 hour playtime.

There are so many wonderful, clever eureka moments along the way that we won’t spoil, but it’s a true testament to Arkane’s skill with level design and seemingly boundless creativity. Deathloop takes a familiar premise and gives it new life, incorporating gameplay elements from Hitman, Dishonored, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, BioShock and dozens of rogue-lites/roguelikes, immerses it in 1960s spy movie kitsch, and an ironically buoyant sense of style, and delivers what is easily one of the year’s best games and possibly one of Arkane’s finest works.

The only gameplay element that feels a bit unnecessary is the PvP gimmick where other players can invade your game (and you theirs) as Julianna. Random yahoos taking the piss isn’t a particularly appealing prospect when you’re mid-run or trying to enjoy the story, however you can play offline and just face the much less ominous AI. Actually, the enemy AI is one of the few cons in this sea of pros; it’s a bit simple at times, but this is a minor quibble when so much of what’s on offer works a treat.

Look, this is one of those situations where you should believe the hype. Deathloop is a wonderfully original, singular experience, boasting compelling story, compulsive gameplay and a startlingly original aesthetic and style. If you own a PS5 or PC, there’s absolutely no reason not to head to Blackreef and start solving this brilliant puzzle, one dead body at a time.

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Australian, Home, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Disclosure is a confronting tale about two close couples whose friendships implode through the allegation that one of their children was sexually abused by the other.

All set in one location, Joel and Bek occasionally babysit the 4-year-old daughter of Emily and Danny. However, when a shocking incident occurs between the children that no one saw happen, the couples come together to hash out the allegation.

Initially, the couples retain a semblance of civility, but it soon spirals out of control as personal and professional considerations mire discussions. For example, Joel is a politician seeking re-election, while Danny is a journalist who is also co-authoring a book with Joel. Meanwhile, Emily is a documentary filmmaker whose long absences at home come under scrutiny, while Bek’s past history influences her attitude. The truth itself is hidden among the differing perspectives, which is artfully explored by the film’s director in its opening act.

From the outset, ordinary lives of young children are afforded seismic resonance as slow motion of kids on playgrounds and crossing roads dramatically inverts the audience’s perception of what children are capable of.

In the following scene, ominous dread fills the mood as a busied parent is momentarily distracted from babysitting. As she takes phone calls and writes down notes, she paces in and out of frame as the camera slowly backs away from the kitchen and into the shadows of the house’s corridor, as if frightened of what is about to unfold.

After deafening screams from an unidentified child, the woman lazily opens the bedroom door and warns her 9-year-old son to “leave the little ones alone”, but returns to her business as quickly as she left it. Even further, as she opens the door, a silhouette of the boy emerges from the light cast across the hallway.

This immediately signals the nefarious intent of the boy that will cataclysmically change the lives of those involved. These opening few minutes alone perfectly illuminate broad societal issues illustrated through deft visual touches that permeate the entire film.

The premise functions entirely on the shifting dynamics of the four characters. Their individual power status is represented through the staging and shots of their initial conversation with each other. For example, Danny and Emily are swimming in their pool naked before Joel and Bek arrive unannounced through the back porch. The pool is installed on a lower level to the house, thereby placing Joel and Bek above their counterparts through low-angle shots that infer they are in the dominant and controlling position. Not only this, the embarrassed Danny and Emily are shot in high angles as they scuttle to put clothes on; caught off-guard and vulnerable to the legal onslaught that will ensue.

Even further, director Michael Bentham offers an immediate visual juxtaposition as the wives and husbands sit next to each other. Bek and Joel are wearing formal cocktail attire as they are about to attend a fundraiser, while Emily and Danny are scantily clad and wet.

The film itself is slightly hindered by the constraints of a modest budget, as some production elements appear unpolished. For instance, the lighting of exterior scenes is vulnerable to weather as the background is often over-exposed, with the actors’ faces only clearly visible when shaded. Furthermore, moments of overlapping sound briefly make dialogue hard to discern. Fortunately, these are nit-picky complaints and almost never take away from the gripping tension of the film.

Michael Bentham’s Disclosure gleans from the Rashomon effect, whereby truth is cloaked by the moral obligations of child-to-child sexual abuse claims, while also revealing the fractious impact on parental and professional livelihoods.

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Tropical Fish

Asian Cinema, Festival, Film Festival, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

The first time we meet our protagonist in the film Tropical Fish, he is in the middle of a dream. He fantasises about going up to a girl at a bus stop and handing her a note. A fitting introduction to our main character, who prefers to act inside his head rather than in reality, and a fitting beginning for a story that feels as if it is also the imaginary creation of our protagonist.

Chen Yu-Hsun paints a vivid picture of our creative main character Liu through colourful dream sequences as well as his depiction of youthful nights at the arcade in which the boy secretly shares a cigarette with his best friend. Liu is a detached young boy, and with an extremely important exam coming up that could decide his future, reality is beginning to intrude on his fantasy world.

A few days before the exam, Liu is kidnapped in the process of trying to save another boy. The kidnappers claim that they will hold the two boys until a ransom has been paid by Liu’s father. But when the man behind the whole kidnapping operation dies, it leaves Liu and the kidnapped boy in the hands of the dead man’s good-hearted sidekick, Ah Ching (Lin Cheng-Sheng).

The film begins to lean into absurd humour as Ah Ching and his family treat the two boys like their own. The boys eat with them, go swimming, go out on the boat and are given help with study. The whole family assures Liu that they will have him back for the exam, comedically stressing the importance of this school test.

The whole plot feels like a scenario that a child has created in order to get out of doing something. In this case, Liu has created a far-fetched narrative to help him get out of doing the exam. We see television footage of news presenters and scenes with Liu’s parents where they all worry about whether he will be back in time to sit the exam. The reactions of other people mirror what Liu thinks they care about the most.

In Taiwan, the joint entrance exam decides whether kids will be able to get into high school and university. Chen Yu-Hsun seemingly pokes fun at the absurd importance placed on this one test.

Liu fits right in with Ah Ching’s family. He treats the other kidnapped boy like a brother, falls in love with one of the girls in the family and we see him begin to hope he can be stuck with the family for as long as possible.

Each character in the family is an individual and brings their own comedic value to the story. The film does a great job at making the viewer feel a part of this family as well. It does seem to lag as it begins to follow unrelated threads and ideas during the second act. But it certainly manages to steer back on track for the finale.

The film is about childhood and the conflict between imagination and reality. It often shows the beauty of the former and the unforgiving nature of the latter. After being so caught up in the whimsical story, we are literally shocked back to reality. The film reminds us of how much value imagination holds and teaches us to never let go of it; no matter how hard reality tries to take it away from us.

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Double Patty

Asian Cinema, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Romantic dramedies are a staple of Korean film culture, with a rich history dating back to box office success stories such as My Sassy Girl (2001) and On Your Wedding Day (2018). So, when an intriguingly titled film like Double Patty comes along, you’d be forgiven for expecting any number of romanticised platitudes and formulaic rom-com tropes.

However, writer-director Seung-Hwan PAEK (directing under the moniker Seung-Hawn BAEK) manages to pleasantly surprise, even after deliberately dropping a number of clichéd genre lures to hook the audience, only to serve up a thoughtful, bittersweet and genuinely heart-warming cinematic experience designed to question our fickle perceptions of contemporary relationships.

On its surface, Double Patty is the modest story of Woo-ram KANG (played by former Soccer star turned model, turned actor Seung-Ho SHIN), a professional wrestler struggling with his impending future outside the ring, and Hyun-ji LLEE (Joo-Hyun BAE, better known by her stage name Irene from the sassy K-pop group Red Velvet), a would be news anchor whose studies and work life threaten to burn her out before her career has a chance to take off.

After a few random encounters, Woo-ram eventually shows up to the twenty-four diner where Hyun-ji works as waitress, and proceeds to order the late night special, a hamburger with double patties. Over the coming weeks, the pair slowly form a respectful friendship, which eventuates in a trip to Woo-ram’s hometown, and the life he turned his back on.

The expectation past this point would be a series of predictable flirtations, possibly a misunderstanding or an old flame steeping back into the picture. Instead, BAEK delivers a raw, charming platonic romance between two disillusioned people struggling with their looming adulthood.

Instead of coming together into a single homogenised entity, BAEK allows his actors to fully inhabit their characters with an honest, beautifully understated casualness. Yes, there is an undeniable love between the two, but it’s how that love is expressed that crafts the epicentre of the film.

Both Woo-ram and Hyun-ji draw inspiration from each other’s better traits, and through their connection, recognise their own flaws. Woo-ram’s inability to reconcile his past with his future is tempered by seeing Hyun-ji’s fearless dedication toward achieving her goals, while her self-doubt and insecurities are tempered by admiration of his training regime and confidence in the ring.

While Double Patty embraces a conclusion that may leave some viewers disappointed, BAEK’s unflinching direction remains true to his characters’ individual journeys, landing a third act that is no less satisfying, nor moving, for its integrity.

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Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

Home, Musical, Prime Video, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

On his sixteenth birthday, Jamie New (Max Harwood) wakes up in the same boring council flat in the same boring town in the same boring life. But boring is not a word you could ever use to describe Jamie New. He dreams of a life on stage, but not as a pop idol or a YouTuber like his classmates all long to be. Jamie’s got his sights set on the spotlight: Jamie’s going to be a drag queen.

Inspired by true events, this adaptation of Tom MacRae and Dan Gillespie Sells’ smash hit musical follows Jamie as he defies the bullies and the disbelievers and walks his own path — and he does it all wearing six-inch heels.

There’s a level of charisma and magnetism required to headline a film like this, and newcomer Max Harwood is more than up for the challenge. Jamie is Harwood’s film debut and much like the character he embodies, he steps into the spotlight without hesitation.

Having Jonathan Butterell as director is an added boon: Butterell not only directed the stage version of Jamie on the West End but he’s also a notable choreographer. His eye for movement and staging ensures Jamie dazzles just as brightly on the screen as he does beneath the theatre’s spotlight.

The soundtrack is upbeat and joyful, each number a showstopper, but none more so than “This Was Me”, written specifically for the film. The song is a collaboration between Richard E. Grant (as the once great drag queen Loco Chanel), and Frankie Goes to Hollywood singer Holly Johnson. New additions to beloved musicals can be a dangerous gamble — the ultimately forgettable “Suddenly” from 2012’s Les Misérables comes to mind — but this brilliantly ‘80s-esque ballad plays over Loco Chanel’s old home movies, giving Jamie some insight into queer history; the victories and the struggles, the love and the loss; all those sacrifices that paved the way to let Jamie live out loud the way so, so many who came before him never could.

Occasional heartache aside, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie is at its core a truly optimistic and uplifting film, something we could definitely see more often from LGBTQIA+ cinema. A warm-hearted, occasionally cheesy celebration of queer culture, of friendship, of love and of family — be it the family you’re born with or the family you chose for yourself along the way.