In receiving major awards at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, Kate Winslet and Sir Anthony Hopkins chose, instead, to honour coronavirus pandemic frontline workers in their acceptance speeches.
Even outside of lockdown conditions, watching certain independent features can instil one with a very specific type of jealousy. The kind where, after seeing a single name attached to so many aspects of a single production, you remember how much of a trek it was to get out of the bed that morning and become bewildered at how any one person can have that much energy.
And in the case of filmmaker/actor Matt Fifer, his feature debut has him firing on all cylinders, co-directing alongside Kieran Mulcare, writing the script with co-star Sheldon D. Brown, editing next to Kyle Sims, as well as carrying the bulk of the emotional load onscreen. The only thing better than seeing someone that motivated is seeing all that hard work pay off in such gratifying fashion.
What makes Cicada truly shine, for all the incredibly murky and uncomfortable material it delves into, is its remarkable deftness of touch. When showing Fifer’s Ben and Brown’s Sam’s budding relationship, the tenderness and genuine intimacy between them creates a healthy bedrock for their musings and confrontations with their respective traumas. And whether it’s providing montage material or simply gliding over these lovers in each other’s arms, Eric Schleicher’s camera work taps into the indie ideal of making the everyday look wondrous. The way he plays around with water and reflections, in particular, is captivating.
It all adds to the film’s intentions of realism, reportedly built out of Fifer and Brown’s own experiences, and the resulting depiction of trauma certainly gives that impression. Exploring notions of racial prejudice, the effects of sexual abuse (with the grim spectre of Sandusky looming over the film’s period setting), the apprehension about coming out (which, unfortunately, can still be a difficult task even today), and all the while keeping the strictly LGBT framing from descending into armchair psychology clichés.
That on its own is already an impressive move, but the film’s larger connections to the LGBT umbrella manages to improve on that. The inclusion of the fabulous Jason ‘Freckle’ Greene, who shines with one of the script’s purple-r moments, mingles with the recurring ‘abolition of gender’ imagery to reinforce genderqueer solidarity, and with Ben specifically – he marks one of the more complex depictions of bisexuality in modern cinema.
Fifer’s characterisation plays into mainstream stereotypes (where ‘can have sex with any gender’ gets conflated with ‘will have sex’), and yet through delicate thematic touches that involve, surprisingly enough, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, recontextualise it as simply part of the standard courting practice. With how much flak the Bs still get in the mainstream (and even within the LGBT grouping), that on its own makes this whole endeavour worthwhile.
Cicada is an indie romance that manages to cover a lot of ground, both sexually and psychologically, with a refined hand and playful direction, making for a progressive outing that feels like you really just watched two people learn to live and love happily.
It’s 1986 and Young Tate (Jackson Robert Scott, IT) has been uprooted from his life in ‘the city’ to a more – let’s say – close-knit community on the outskirts. Unbeknown to him, this move is a last ditch attempt by his mum and dad, played by Sprague Grayden and Shane West respectively, to salvage what’s left of their marriage.
Things already don’t look good as the two argue openly in front of their son within 24 hours of stepping over the threshold. As his parents tear strips off each other, Tate becomes fascinated with his twenty-something neighbour, Gossamer (Alexandra Grey, Transparent) who lives with her retired father, Edward (Franklin Ojeda Smith) and somewhat dim friend, Jimbo (Ethan Suplee).
Gossamer is a Trans woman and noting this, or at least presuming she’s just a man in a dress, Tate’s father quickly forbids his son from interacting with the neighbours. This being the ‘80s, his demands are laced with homophobia and Tate looks like he’s destined to take on his father’s prejudices. However, Tate’s curiosity gets the better of him and after a disagreement over a skateboard, Gossamer takes him under her wing.
Being a person of colour, as well as a Trans woman, there’s an initial fear that Gossamer Folds could devolve into a white saviour tale or perhaps worst, fetishise its lead to make her the magical answer to all of Tate’s issues. Instead, thanks in part to Grey’s performance, Gossamer is allowed to be her own person in her own story. In one of the strongest scenes, finally alone with her thoughts after a troubling night, Grey manages to convey so much without saying anything. Equally, her relationship with Tate is, quite frankly, adorable to watch as they bond over David Bowie and silver nail varnish. For his part, Robert Scott handles the material well and is thoroughly charming throughout.
Whilst Tate and Gossamer’s relationship grows, director Lisa Donato and screenwriter Bridget Flanery hint at darkness lurking around the peripherals. And it’s here that perhaps the film falters slightly. Over the course of the movie, Gossamer and her friends discuss a series of bashings that are happening in town, whilst she regularly has to contend with her father dead naming and misgendering her. These are day to day occurrences in Gossamer’s life, but the film doesn’t feel as strong as its protagonist does in order to tackle these issues, or at least not successfully. These plot threads just sort of hang in the air without any real closure. Sure, life isn’t really a series of endings that wrap up neatly, but there’s a feeling of wanting from the film’s ending; as if it wasn’t really sure how it wanted to finish. A small shame when everything that came before it is so strong. That said if your heart is looking to be warmed up this spring, Gossamer Folds is a treat for the emotions.
Mainstream success means more than financial reward for the people employed at fringe lesbian magazine Curve (formerly Deneuve): it means progress.
Curve magazine’s thirty-year history of championing lesbian voices is articulately explored in first time director Jen Rainin’s contemplative documentary, Ahead of the Curve.
The film follows the contribution made by founder and former Editor-in-chief Frances “Franco” Stevens. Her ambition is to advance lesbian representation in media, stemming from her frustration towards the suppression – if not erasure – of queer voices.
The film documents Stevens’ hardscrabble efforts to launch a publication – compounded by HIV/AIDs affected, Clinton-era “don’t ask, don’t tell’ America – intercut with interviews from colleagues (well-known participants including Melissa Etheridge and Lea DeLaria) and present-day efforts in understanding how the publication fits within wider queer media. These complexities are expressed as the side-effects of an overabundance of online queer content, a decaying magazine landscape, and Trumpian politics.
Where Ahead of the Curve finds its stride is in its comprehensive dissection of current lesbian identity. We learn through the eyes of the extremely personable Stevens who, despite being a pioneer in the advancement of lesbian visibility (her grounding based in the liberal attitudes of ‘90s San Fran), reflects on what female representation looks like within contemporary LGBTQ society.
This level of self-reflection allows Ahead of the Curve to comment on the present issues faced by queer identity: the terminology and use of language, particularly the divisiveness of the term lesbian. The film recognises the distinction (and overlap) between communities based on sexuality and gender. Their forever evolving definitions are revealing of a greater need for broader education on queer culture.
That said, the communities themselves are not without their destructive tendencies. The point made in the film is that by having these discussions, it hammers home the need for ongoing dialogue, and the importance in having safe spaces/outlets for communities to not only embrace their culture, but to preserve it.
Told with humour, intelligence and an abundance of personality, Ahead of the Curve posits that the spectrum of lesbian identity is greater than the product of its struggles. It is a stark reminder of the importance of visibility (particularly for women who remain under-represented at the best of times) in the fight for equality.
This (2018) film quite literally looks beautiful from the first frame, and stays that way, whether the camera be focussed on hyper-colourful theatrical costumes or street life. The title – which translates as “two men” – incidentally refers to a Vietnamese percussion instrument, used in modern folk opera, whose rhythms are said to show a moral path for the musician.
The main protagonist Mr. Dung (Lien Binh Phat), a ruthless debt collector for loan sharks who is known as Dung the Thunderbolt, presumably because of his tendency to resort quickly to violence against those who don’t pay up. Phat has a smouldering presence, and his character has a cynical and sardonic attitude to life – devoid, it would appear, of both illusions and happiness.
But as we see in the effective and sparingly used flashbacks, it wasn’t always like that. Dung’s parents were musicians, and as a child he adored and rejoiced in traditional Vietnamese opera. Memories come flooding back when he has to collect from Linh Phung (Isaac), an actor and singer in one such production. The opera’s melodramatic excesses form a neat counterpoint to Dung’s still-waters-run-deep persona. Dung and Phung circle each other like rather benign sharks, playing video games, chatting with a mixture of mockery and curiosity, looking at the night sky, discussing a children’s book… If that’s starting to sound a tad sentimental, it simply isn’t; the dialogue and the acting make sure of that.
The homoerotic element in Song Lang is strictly sub-textual, but there’s no mistaking it. This is an entrancing and intelligent movie, with a cracker of an ending that you’re not likely to predict. Highly recommended.