Tuesday, December 1, 2020
Movies Screen Grabs Screen Grabs: Trans films to the front for Pride

Screen Grabs: Trans films to the front for Pride

Plus: Miss Juneteenth, Babyteeth, Yourself and Yours, Runner, and more new movies to stream.

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Normally, the Frameline International LGBTQ Film Festival would already be open, though this year COVID-19 has pushed the festival into a smaller online edition running this coming Thursday through Sunday that we will preview early next week. Meanwhile, however, there’s no lack of LGBTQ content being released during Gay Pride Month via other platforms. There is a particular wealth of new features focused on transgender issues, including three documentaries that are are available now. (And here are some more films recommended by the Transgender Film Festival.)

The starry one is Netflix’s Disclosure, which is partly a Celluloid Closet-type overview of past film and TV trans depictions, and part measure-taking of the great recent strides made both in front of and behind the camera. Like blackface, cross-dressing imagery traces back to the very beginnings of cinema, often used for comic effect (particularly to ridicule femininity itself), then eventually as something sinister in thrillers like Psycho, Dressed to Kill, and Silence of the Lambs. Even when sympathetically portrayed, trans persons are often solely seen as victims—prostitutes, corpses, prostitute-corpses in myriad cop or hospital-centric TV shows—or as wacky, frequently doomed sidekicks to the heterosexual protagonist. “I’ve died so many times I can’t even count on camera,” actress Candis Cayne says here.

It’s not until the last third of Sam Feder’s nearly two-hour documentary that we get to some positive representations, nearly all within the last few years. These are important, because as a GLAAD poll revealed, 80% of Americans don’t actually know anyone transgender. So their opinions are shaped by popular media, even as trans rights have been turned into “a front and center issue in the culture wars” by fear-mongering conservatives. Hopefully soon we’ll see less “stunt casting” of cis actors in trans roles (for which they often win awards), and fewer talk shows whose hosts can’t think of anything but “So what happened to your private parts?”-type questions.

Things have evolved quickly of late, but they still have some distance to go. With Susan Stryker, Laverne Cox, Lilly Wachowski, Chaz Bono. Yance Ford and others offering commentary here, Disclosure offers valuable insight into how trans communities see themselves being seen onscreen—and how those images impact offscreen lives.

Far from the glitter of the entertainment industry, the titular figures in Jennifer Bagley and Mary Hewey’s Jack & Yaya are just trying to live ordinary working-class existences in a society that insists on viewing them as special cases. In a quirk of fate, Jack and Yaya met at their shared New Jersey backyard fence as toddlers—not only clicking right away as BFFs, but somehow immediately grasping that each was meant for the other’s gender.

Three decades or so later, they’re at differing points along the “transitioning” line. We don’t find out much about their external lives (jobs, any romantic relationships), but we do get a big dose of their colorful, largely supportive, perpetually beer-hoisting families. This isn’t RuPaul’s Drag Race—it’s the kind of milieu in which an anecdote might begin “So I’m sitting in the Best Buy parking lot, eating these buffalo wings, and crying…” Jack & Yaya is available On Demand.

Several thousand miles and many worlds apart are the central figures in Theodore Collatos and Carolina Monnerat’s Queen of Lapa. The title refers to Luana Muniz, a rather famous Brazilian trans activist and performer who presides over a live/work hostel for transvestite prostitutes she founded two decades ago in Rio de Janeiro. She is larger-than-life, and so are her residents—perhaps partly as armor against unpredictable clients and incidents of street violence recounted in some harrowing personal stories.

Like the recently-rereleased 1968 U.S. documentary The Queen, this lushly colored documentary depicts a microcosm of flamboyantly proud societal outliers who’ve created their own support network in reaction to frequent hostility from the outside world. At present it’s available for streaming by arrangement with individual theaters and LGBTQ organizations, including CinemaSF.

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Other films new to streaming this week include South Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s 2016 Yourself and Yours, a spin on Luis Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire with the late Ju-hyuk Kim as a young man whose insecurities are compounded by the fear that his girlfriend (Lee Yoo-young) may be lying to him—either that, or there are multiple women in Seoul who look just like her. It’s available via Roxie Virtual Cinema, as is the Australian documentary It My Blood It Runs (more info here), whose bright 10-year-old protagonist’s struggles with mainstream schooling in the Northern Territories crystallize the long-running conflicts between assimilation, government control, cultural tradition and identity in Aboriginal communities.

Also available as of Friday June 19th:

Miss Juneteenth
Arriving just in time to mark the holiday that our President’s race-baiting just made more famous is this first feature from Channing Godfrey Peoples, which premiered at Sundance in January. Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) is the former local beauty queen still stuck in the small native Texas town she’d hoped that crown would lift her out of. Plan A having failed, she’s transferred her hopes to a much-less-driven teenage daughter (Alexis Chikaeze) who doesn’t want to pursue mom’s old dreams, and really doesn’t want to run for Miss Juneteenth.

This leisurely, flavorful drama also encompasses Turquoise’s conflicted relationships with her sanctimonious yet boozy mother (Lori Hayes), funeral-home boss-slash-suitor (Akron Watson), and the father of her child whom she’s still kinda-sorta “seeing” (Kendrick Sampson). The clash between our hard-driving heroine’s ambitions and the limits of her segregated, podunk town underline what one character here notes: That even though it’s been over 150 years since Texas belatedly abolished slavery (an occasion marked by Juneteenth), here there “Ain’t no American Dream for black folks,” still. Some patience is required for this laid-back narrative, but it provides a finely detailed glimpse at black lives seldom portrayed onscreen. It’s another Roxie Virtual Cinema presentation (more info here).

Runner
By contrast, track and field star Guor Marial would appear to be a triumphant illustration of the American Dream. Among an estimated four million global refugees from Sudan’s civil wars, eight of his nine siblings among its two million or so casualties, he successfully escaped a refugee camp and abusive captivity as a child, eventually landing in the U.S. as a teenager. In high school his hitherto unknown athletic prowess was groomed, leading to All-American status at Iowa State and participation in the 2012 Summer Olympics.

The latter was a source of great pride for the newly brokered nation of South Sudan, which did not as yet have an Olympic Committee (so he was granted a special status to compete). Still, the burden of that figurehead responsibility, and the psychological wear of past traumas (some dramatized here in animated sequences), is often hard for Marial to endure. This documentary portrait is inspirational, as one might expect. But it’s also grueling at times, because of the unexpected political, financial and physical hurdles that complicate his path. It is available for streaming though various venues and organizations including Alamo Drafthouse (more info here).

Babyteeth
Director Shannon Murphy and writer Rita Kalnejais’ first feature is familiar stuff of a not particularly welcome sort, when reduced to a narrative nutshell: It’s another movie about a fatally ill young woman whose final stretch brings everyone around her together. But Babyteeth isn’t a tearjerker romance like Love Story or A Walk to Remember, or even a tearjerker-romance-cum-formulaic-indie-quirkfest like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Instead it takes its tenor largely from Moses (Toby Wallace), the hugely inappropriate new friend of 16-year-old suburbanite Milla (Eliza Scanlen, who also recently died as Beth in Little Women).

He is 23, homeless, and makes a rather feral first impression with his awful mullet-mohawk and prison-y facial tattoos. An apparent drug user and sometime dealer, his whole affect practically screams “free clinic.” But Milla has cancer, and has decided he is just what she needs, so her horrified parents reluctantly allow this…er, relationship-or-whatever to proceed. Besides, mum (Essie Davis from The Babadook) and dad (Ben Mendelsohn) have their own issues. They are not coping with their only child’s mortal illness at all well, to the point where sometimes Milla seems the mature adult of the lot by default.

Babyteeth’s character dysfunctionalia is at first so savagely comedic it recalls Jane Campion’s debut Sweetie. Yet this is ultimately a less bilious family portrait, even as it’s not a particularly conventional or sentimental first-love tale. Propelled by dynamic tonal (and soundtrack-music) changes, the film is anarchic but also sweet at the core, just like Wallace’s memorable performance. It’s certainly one of the more boldly accomplished directorial bows of the year to date.

7500
Though you might question the taste of utilizing a fictive 9/11-type incident as fodder for a thriller, but this claustrophobic tale told in “realtime” works well as a reasonably realistic crisis drama, closer to United 93 than, well, Airport 1975. Joseph Gordon-Leavitt plays Tobias, a Berlin-based American pilot flying a routine commercial run to Paris. But shortly after takeoff, several men on board rush the cockpit, badly wounding his captain. Putting up a fight, Tobias is temporarily able to shut them out and regain control of the plane—but then the hijackers begin threatening to kill passengers if he doesn’t cooperate.

7500 is usefully narrow in both thematic and physical focus, refusing to dwell much on the terrorists’ political purpose, and never (beyond a prelude of airport surveillance footage) letting its action leave the cockpit, where our protagonist has very limited options to save his own and eighty-odd other lives. This first feature for German writer-director Patrick Vollrath is available on Amazon Prime Video.

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