The Best & Worst of LGBTQ+ Representation at SXSW
This year's virtual SXSW Film Festival showcased a wide variety of queer and trans stories, but were they all handled well? Here are the good, fine, bad, and outright ugly LGBTQ+ movies that premiered at the Austin festival:
It's hard to begin this by talking about any other SXSW title. Megan Park's directorial debut deservedly took home both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Choice Award in the Narrative Feature Film Competition, as well as the Brightcove Illumination Award which celebrates a rising filmmaker early on in their career.
Park's film follows Vada (Jenna Ortega), a teenager navigating the emotional toll of surviving a school shooting, as she begins to withdraw from her family, experiment with drugs, and bond with a new friend (Maddie Ziegler) who was with her when the shooting took place.
Not only does The Fallout feature gorgeously layered performances by Ortega & Ziegler and a moving score by Finneas O'Connell, but Park imbues her film with a casually queer narrative arc that feels completely organic, honest, and profoundly tender. It's a title that will surely find US distribution soon and whenever it is available to watch, you should prioritize seeing it.
The idea of German character actor Udo Kier and LGBTQ+ icon Jennifer Coolidge starring opposite one another was enticing enough as is, but make it a drama about a retired gay hairdresser returning to his stomping grounds to do one last job, directed by the person who gave us Another Gay Movie and Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild!, and I'm sold.
As witty and queer as you expect it to be with enough heart and detail to feel thoroughly lived-in, introspective, and serious, Todd Stephens' Swan Song is sure to surprise with not only its charming plot and unique characters but a truly jaw-dropping performance by Coolidge.
Known primarily for her high camp performances in Legally Blonde, A Cinderella Story, and Christopher Guest's mockumentaries, Coolidge's characterization is completely against type and extraordinarily grounded. While she isn't in the film for too long, she takes every second of screen time she's given to prove what a compelling dramatic actress she can be. She and Kier are sure to surprise audiences, and I cannot wait for more people to experience the gay magic of this movie.
Not all major film festivals feature LGBTQ+ representation throughout each of their short programs, but SXSW made sure to do so. Femme by Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping made a major splash in the Narrative Shorts section while Adam Baran's Trade Center and Whitney Skauge's The Beauty President preserved bits of queer history in the Documentary Shorts program. In the Animated Shorts category, Maggie Brennan's Our Bed Is Green offered a distinctly bisexual take on science-fiction and Leah Shore's outlandish and unabashedly horny Puss made for a unique palate cleanser in the Midnight Shorts Competition.
It's wonderful to see LGBTQ+ representation peppered throughout a festival's whole lineup, and it's even better when the work is as strong as these short films were. Femme is a heart-pounding and tremendously engaging look at Black flamboyance, brought to life magnificently by Paapa Essiedu, known best from his roles in I May Destroy You and Gangs of London. Trade Center explores the not-so-secret but perhaps forgotten histories of cruising at the World Trade Center and what 9/11 meant specifically for queer men in New York City. The Beauty President introduces its viewers to the exceptional, magnetic, and brilliant Terence Smith aka Joan Jett Blakk, a drag queen who ran for president in 1992 and 1996 and what his legacy means within gay history more broadly. Our Bed Is Green uses ravishing animated imagery to delve into the unspoken dreams and desires of a young woman who wants more than her current relationship allows. And Puss is just a wild ride of magic, pent-up pandemic frustrations, and female sexuality told in a way only Leah Shore (Old Man, Funeral) can.
All of these stories offered something unique and incredibly necessary, and it's been quite heartening to see each of them included in their respective programs. Each section was better for it, and so are we as viewers.
See You Then:
Even in 2021, it's still (unfortunately) novel to see transgender films written and directed by transgender filmmakers, but Mari Walker's feature directorial debut is a refreshing change of pace. Starring Pooya Mohseni and Lynn Chen as former lovers reunited after many years apart, Walker gets into the nitty-gritty of implicit transphobia and social awkwardness surrounding transition that cisgender people often express toward their trans family members, friends, and, yes, exes, but she doesn't use that for cheap spectacle.
The script, co-written by Walker alongside Kristen Uno, is quite impressive, especially given how they ramp up tension in real-time as their characters get dinner and drinks before exploring the place where they first met. It's an incredibly difficult task to make a sustained conversation interesting for an audience, and, to be frank, it isn't always. But where Walker and Uno land is a surprising and thought-provoking place. While the film may lag at moments in the first and second acts, it is worth being patient. Chen is a screen veteran known for her work in Alice Wu's Saving Face, but Mohseni is the real star here. After a decade performing in bit roles on TV shows and in short films, she's finally getting the leading roles she's deserved all along and hopefully this is just the beginning of that.
See You Then is an incredibly competent movie that will hopefully function as a calling card for Walker to get more opportunities with greater resources in the future, but it just needed more momentum and higher stakes earlier on to go from a solid movie to a great one.
Zoom movies were perhaps an unforeseen development a year ago, but filmmakers have spent the past twelve months using the world's new favorite video conferencing software for much more than just socially-distant work meetings or birthday parties. Host by Rob Savage and the short film Unsubscribe applied this to the horror genre, but now we've got a Zoom drama courtesy of writer-director-actress Natalie Morales in her feature directorial debut.
Surprisingly, Morales' film isn't at all about COVID-19, quarantine, or social distancing. Rather, she takes a scenario that would already be done over video chat in any other year—Spanish lessons from a bilingual woman in Costa Rica for a wealthy gay man in California—and makes something far more timeless than the other entires in this new genre will ever be.
Following Adam (Mark Duplass), the aforementioned wealthy gay man, as he begins to sharpen his Spanish skills after his boyfriend surprised him with lessons by Cariño (Natalie), we dive headfirst into spontaneous trauma, white savior tropes, and surprising secrets, but Morales is doing all of this with a great deal of intentionality. She's commenting on and critiquing it all as it plays out, but it only sometimes works. Like with See You Then, this is a very challenging structure to institute for yourself and it limits Language Lessons from reaching its full potential. It falls into predictable narrative beats, particularly towards its end, and certain character developments feel woefully rushed. Overall, it's a compelling story, performed magnificently by Morales, but its screenplay, co-written by Morales and Duplass, needed a few further rounds of edits.
Sound of Violence:
I've been waiting for Jasmin Savoy Brown to get cast in more good roles after she proved what a powerhouse performer she is in The Leftovers, but this sadly is not it. She's okay as the murderous Alexis Reeves, a formerly deaf girl who gains synesthetic pleasure and better hearing as a result of others' pain, but the filmmaking surrounding her performance is extremely questionable.
It's a true midnight movie and follows through on the promise of twisted gore, but the ethics of the film are highly debatable. On the one hand, I am a firm proponent that marginalized groups should be seen onscreen doing anything and everything that their cis, straight, white, male, and/or able-bodied counterparts have done over the past one-hundred years of cinema. However, one must also consider the impact their stories will have on the communities they choose to represent. Given the lack of representation of deaf stories onscreen, Sound of Violence could have and should have been far more careful in regards to their story's implications as well as its casting of hearing actors in deaf roles. But, alas, it didn't.
As for how the story handles LGBTQ+ representation, that's a bit more complicated. In some ways, Sound of Violence can be understood as a sort of lesbian villain origin story which is incredibly distinct, out of the box, and perhaps even empowering to some. But at the same time, Alexis' queerness feels sorely underdeveloped. There are countless opportunities to dig into her character and what makes her tick, but writer-director Alex Noyer never goes deep enough to make much of an impact. Instead, all nuance is sacrificed in favor of more and more bloodshed. One only needs to have seen a single other slasher to understand exactly where Sound of Violence is going, making for an uncomfortable, unrewarding, and unfortunately dull viewing experience.
Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil:
This is a tough one to include here. It must be stated first and foremost that Demi Lovato's bravery in sharing her experiences with addiction, overdosing, misogyny, sexual violence, and much more is absolutely remarkable and hopefully will help those who are navigating similar struggles in their own lives. However, Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil struggles to justify its identity as a docuseries rather than a movie, feeling overstuffed and half-baked. At only four episodes and 100-minutes of total screen time, this format simply doesn't make sense.
Lovato only begins to discuss her relationship with her sexual orientation in the final episode, sharing how tapping into that side of herself has made her feel more liberated and happy. For a show that is mostly about trauma and pain, it needs more of those moments in order to strike the right balance and pace. I hope that Demi Lovato feels good about what she has shared and how it has been presented, but the whole show feels so exploitative, like they're just using her agony for ad revenue and forcing her to sit through others explaining her own life to her.
It's not horribly made, but there's something off about it the entire time. That may be due to the fact that the show is pieced together between new footage and old B-roll from an earlier documentary that was scrapped, but the editing just lacks consistency. Given that they chose to pursue a series format, they had room to expand upon certain aspects of her life and allow her to speak her truth more thoroughly, but, instead, Michael D. Ratner, the show's director, chose to focus more on celebrity acquaintances and sensationalized events. It's a shame because I imagine that the material was all there, but the whole show feels rushed and unable to portray Demi as the three-dimensional person she is.
Potato Dreams of America:
Where to begin with Potato Dreams of America? Wes Hurley's autobiographical, campy comedy about a Russian boy nicknamed Potato who moves to the United States with his mother after she's selected by a homophobic man to be his mail-order bride is a lot. It makes some odd but interesting stylistic choices that emphasize Potato's alienation in both Russia and America, but the ending is where it all flies off the rails. If you do not want this movie to be spoiled for you, please do not read any further.
As the movie is auto-biographical, I want to preface what I am about to say by stressing that I do not blame or judge Hurley for representing his family as they were or are. However, I will say that how he constructs certain moments falls directly into dated and disrespectful tropes that mock transgender women. In the third act, right when Potato's homophobic father is considering sending him and his mother back to Russia, Potato's father spontaneously comes out as a transgender woman, accepts her gay stepson, and all is fine.
I immediately thought back to Jen Richards' brilliant dissection on why cisgender men need to stop being cast as trans women and how little we've progressed since then. Yes, there are more trans actors being hired for trans roles. One only needs to scroll up to see examples of this at SXSW. But every instance in which a trans woman is portrayed as a man in a wig only holds us back as a community. Beyond the ways in which Potato Dreams of America falls into that harmful imagery, Hurley does very little to explore this character's humanity beyond as an antagonistic foil and, subsequently, a source of humor. I don't know Hurley's intentions regarding this character or his relationship to the person by whom they're inspired, but I do sincerely hope that he takes the time to listen to myself and other transgender people in this industry about the harm done through this casting as well as his construction of this character.
Also, the idea that all homophobic people are secretly repressed members of the LGBTQ+ community is so incorrect and the depiction of this so overwrought, tired, and quite honestly exhausting to see reproduced yet again. But more so than anything, it's a reminder of the work still needed to be done in so many facets of this industry. For that, I suppose I am thankful, but I would never suggest any trans person experience what I did. Modern media has a responsibility to refuse punching down on the most vulnerable members of society, but Potato Dreams of America made it abundantly clear that they do not care.