Outfest is one of the biggest LGBTQIA film festivals in the country, and, you guessed it, they had to reschedule everything due to the pandemic. There were some drive-in screenings in Los Angeles, but the majority of this year’s festival (which ran at the end of August) was digitally available online. I wonder if festivals will still offer to show films online whenever things calm down–whenever the heck that may be. If all our lives had not been turned upside down, I would never have had the opportunity to see such a large number of narrative features, documentaries, and short film programs.
Including short programs, I saw around 70 of the 160 films offered this year at Outfest. I tried pushing myself to see things I wouldn’t normally watch, and I made a conscious effort to not just see things revolving around gay men. I wanted to have a well-rounded experience, even though I was enjoying the films from my home.
I hope Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story does for its subject what Searching for Sugar Man did for Rodriguez. Glenn-Copeland is such a natural presence on screen, but when he takes the stage, his voice vibrates right through you. It will make you immediately hunt down every piece of music that Glenn-Copeland ever made.
The Obituary of Tunde Johnson was by far the hardest movie that I watched, especially in the wake of the George Floyd’s murder and the murder of Daniel Prude in Rochester, New York. Tunde Johnson is a Nigerian-American teen who starts off every day by coming out as gay to his parents, but his day always ends with him being killed by police officers. Whenever he dies, his day resets and he has to live the day over again. Steven Silver gives such an incredible performance as the title character, and you feel helpless as an audience member. No matter what course Tunde Johnson takes, he ends up dead. It’s truly horrifying.
Yours Mine Ours, from director Ben Baur, made an impression on me for having a lead character who has everything that you would want. Baur also stars in the film as a writer struggling with writer’s block, and he meets up with an ex while his partner is out of town. There’s a gentleness to Baur’s direction and a relatable frustration from his character. I am excited to see what other films he directs next.
20. The Capote Tapes
“Instead of a shrink, I had Truman,” is a line that stuck out to me from this delightful documentary about the infamous writer of In Cold Blood. Instead of focusing entirely on Capote’s time as he wrote about the Clutter family murders, this doc feature hones in on some of Capote’s failures such as his unfinished novel, Answered Prayers. We hear from his adopted daughter, Kate Harrington, as well as writers like Phoebe Price and Colm Toibin. It weaves in never-before-heard recordings from audio interviews, and it’s surprisingly sad but fun. You’ll reach for a cocktail immediately and want to dish.
19. In France, Michelle Is a Man’s Name
Em Weinstein wrote and directed this short film about a trans man who has a very uncomfortable experience when he is taken to a strip club with his father. Much like last year’s Oscar shortlisted Miller & Son, Weinstein’s film is confidently made and a lot is left unsaid. The silences hang very heavy.
18. The Cypher
Letia Solomon’s The Cypher did the impossible: it made me want so much more. Khalil is a closeted rapper competing in a competition and he’s made it to the finals against the feared Yung Reap. When his secret is compromised, all eyes are on Khalil to see if he embraces it or if he allows his opponent to take him down. I could watch an entire series around these characters. Someone get FX on the phone immediately.
A flower shop is the setting of this short film where two women (one transgender and one cisgender) meet up to discuss their daughter. I love how a lot of the shots were framed, and it’s a very simply made short that has an emotional pull to it that I wasn’t expecting.
16. Caro Comes Out
I didn’t catch a lot of documentary short films, but Caro Comes Out was so easy to watch that, much like The Cypher, I wanted more. Caro is a lesbian and a lot of people in her family knew that she was gay. She does a social experiment where she comes out to her entire family and she documents their reaction. Some people don’t know why she is doing it and some people know already. When people come out, the reactions vary from person to person, but this gives the person coming out full control of his, her, or their own experience.
15. Breaking Fast
I’ll be honest…there aren’t a lot of gay romantic comedies that don’t suck. There’s probably 4 that I can name off the top of my head, and I am glad to see that this rare success is a centerpiece for a lot of LGBTQIA film festivals that are happening digitally this fall. Haaz Sleiman plays Mo, a Muslim practicing gay man living in West Hollywood, and he has to navigate his own heartbreak when his boyfriend breaks up with him. He takes solace in cooking for Ramadan but is surprised when an all-American actor named Kal (Michael Cassidy) asks if he can cook with him to keep him company. Sleiman (who is fantastic in Apple TV+’s Little America) and Cassidy have adorable chemistry together, and the script doesn’t make fun of Mo for his seemingly dorky side. Imagine that in West Hollywood?
14. How to Say I Love You at Night
This short, from director Andree Ljutica, makes you feel like you are in the room. Paul shows up to Benny’s apartment unannounced and it throws off the chemistry they found when they were chatting online. It’s a tense 18 minutes long, and the camera makes you feel like you are there in person witnessing the entire thing with no way to stop anything. The reveal at the end is something you must experience for yourself.
Feminina gives me hope for younger people who get to know trans or gay people. Nick is a young man whose life is inside a boxing ring, and he starts training a young trans woman named Nina. She wanted to learn how to box in order to protect herself, and Nick witnesses firsthand how men can mistreat women with their hands and their words. The two leads are great together. We could have Ilana Garcia-Mittleman’s film play in schools just to remind kids just how basic empathy and romance can work together.
Set in Rochester, New York, Olivia Peace’s film centers on the relationship between two high school girls as they deal with the death of a classmate. Carrie (a fantastic Madeline Grey DeFreece) is the quieter friend of Hannah (Rachel Sennott), a teenager whose biggest current worry is grabbing the attention of a cute boy that she has a crush on. They are attending a group grief counseling session in their synagogue after a tragedy, but their friendship is tested when Carrie confesses to having deeper feelings. Peace’s film makes you feel all of those anxious feelings you had as a high schooler but manages to balance the sadness with the charisma of her two leading ladies.
A broken family’s bond takes on new dimensions in Anna Kerrigan’s film. Steve Zahn and Jillian Bell play the parents of Sasha Knight’s Joe, a transgender boy who has always had a closer relationship to his father. Joe can’t stand being told by his mother that he should be playing with dolls or wearing dresses, so he asks his father to take him away. Joe and his father travel through the Montana wilderness to try and get to Canada before Joe’s mother can track them down. The three leads are all great, but Bell stole the show for me. She’s made a name as being a scene stealer in comedies, but last year’s Brittany Runs a Marathon and this prove that she’s got some incredible dramatic chops.
I admit that I wanted to see Monsoon because I have a massive crush on Henry Golding. Don’t we all? Monsoon centers on Golding’s Kit, a British Vietnamese man who has never been back to Saigon after his family fled the country over three decades ago. He arrives initially to spread his father’s ashes, but he is taken aback by a country where he feels like he doesn’t belong. Golding’s performance is really restrained, but I loved seeing where his eyes went. It could’ve been a silent performance and I would’ve been enthralled. It’s gorgeously shot.
I was glad to revisit this short after reviewing it earlier this year. Two straight bros (Justice Smith and Graham Patrick Martin) spar over topics of masculinity while they lounge around and play video games and vape. It’s a sun-kissed short film with a lot on its mind and a lot to unpack.
8. Muy Gay Too Mexicano
This is easily my favorite short at Outfest. Like Query, it unpacks a lot but this short does it in such a gleefully gay way that it made me smile both times that I watched it. JD has his new crush over for dinner and a movie but his Mexican identity and his gay identity spar with one another throughout the evening. If you are a fan of writer Jorge Molina on Twitter (which you should be), you feel like you get to know him better as you watch this. Mamma Mia! and Christine Baranski references abound. A joyous movie.
7. Two of Us
It may sound like a clichéd question, but how far would you go to protect your one and only true love? Nina and Madeleine have lived across the hall from one another for so many years that they just leave the doors open between their apartments. Their families, however, don’t know that they are also lovers and very much in love. A squabble over selling their apartments is followed by a tragic accident when Madeleine has a stroke and is left unable to speak. Madeleine’s daughter becomes involved in her mother’s life, and Nina is all but shut out. Nina has to resort to increasingly clever acts just to be around the woman she loves, and it’s a truly beautiful film. There are some big swings in the third act that don’t always pay off, but I can easily look beyond them.
6. Shiva Baby
Rachel Sennott could play Natalie Portman’s sister, and I’m sure she’s sick of hearing that. In Shiva Baby, Sennott’s Danielle accompanies her family to the Shiva of a family friend. Not only does she bump into her childhood friend (who also happens to be her ex), but her sugar daddy shows up with his wife and their new child in tow. In devolves into this claustrophobic nightmare and director Emma Seligman makes traditional music sound like a horror score as we close in on Sennott’s face. This recently played to raves at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
5. P.S. Burn This Letter Please
I think we take the history of drag performing for granted. We have endless content from RuPaul’s Drag Race, but we easily forget how dangerous the act of dressing up like a woman was in the mid-1950’s. P.S. Burn This Letter Please was the best doc I saw at Outfest by a mile, and it’s no surprise that it took home the Audience Award for Documentary Feature. Directors Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexiera weave a loving tapestry of the men who risked arrest and ridicule before the Stonewall riots. It’s passionate and poignant and I bawled my face off watching it.
Directors Matthew Fifer and Kieran Mulcare made a stunning debut with the beautifully sad Cicada. Fifer plays Ben, a bisexual man floating through his life in New York City as he feeds himself with sex with strangers. His hooking up calms down when he connects with Sheldon D. Brown’s Sam, a handsome guy who works in data analysis. Brown co-wrote the script with Fifer and it’s clear that these young men are carefully drawn and fleshed out from their own minds. Set in 2013, the Sandusky scandal hits too close to Ben’s life and Sam struggles with coming out to his father while dealing with his own past trauma. Cicada is more thoughtful than you think when you sit down to watch it. It’s sexy, honest, and moving.
3. Gossamer Folds
This film could be a crowd-pleaser the crowd will seek it out. In 1986, 10-year-old Tate is uprooted from his life when his parents (played by Sprague Grayden and Shane West) move him to the suburbs of Kansas City to escape something that threatened their marriage. Their next door neighbors are Gossamer, a vivacious transgender woman, and her father, Edward. Tate, played by an adorable Jackson Robert Scott, has an inquisitive mind and carries a dictionary around with him everywhere he goes, but his father isn’t too keen on the people who live next door. Alexandra Grey, as Gossamer, is luminous and bold.
If you’re a drama nerd, you will love Dramarama. Gene wants to come out to his friends at their last murder mystery themed sleepover/pool party. Yes, you read that correctly. Not only is it a murder mystery themed sleepover/pool party, but everyone is dressed as their favorite fictional Victorian character. There are Sondheim references, for god’s sake. Set in 1994, this will hit very specifically to a group of people who love performing, especially if you were the black sheep with a secret. It’s Clue meets Camp.
Eric Steel’s Minyan is not flashy but quiet and carefully paced. Samuel H. Levine’s performance is my favorite that I saw throughout the festival. He plays David, a Jewish gay man who isn’t sure if his Jewishness can exist alongside his burgeoning homosexuality. He doesn’t like his studies and he doesn’t like his homelife with his Russian mother. He slowly starts to go out to bars and cruising parks but this is a dangerous time as the AIDS crisis is dawning on New York City. Minyan is a patient film with an anxious spirit. David is excited to start his new life, but he must now be aware of the dangers that lie ahead of him and his new community.